New research was published recently on the practice of so called “off-rolling” in schools prepared by YouGov on behalf of Ofsted and was followed by an official online Ofsted blog seeking to explain the approach taken by inspectors in an effort to crack down on the practice. Martin Hodgson explains what off-rolling is, how common it is and what Ofsted are doing to stop it.

The Ofsted definition of “off-rolling”

There is no legal definition of off-rolling. However, Ofsted recognise it as the practice of removing a pupil from a school roll without using a permanent exclusion, when the removal is primarily in the best interests of the school, rather than the best interests of the pupil.

Ofsted state that, while the practice may not always be unlawful, in their view it is unethical and unacceptable.

Legitimate reasons for pupils to leave a school roll

Ofsted acknowledge that off-rolling is not a black-and-white issue and that very often there is a “good and positive explanation” why a pupil may be removed from a school roll.

They describe legitimate reasons as including:

  • a change in living arrangements – for example, moving house

  • moving to another, closer or preferred school when a place becomes available

  • where a parent wishes for their child to be home educated

  • dual-registering a pupil with another school such as an alternative provider

  • a valid permanent exclusion

  • a “managed move” from one school to another as an alternative to exclusion.

Ofsted state that none of these scenarios are likely to constitute off-rolling according to their definition.

The regulator stresses that it fully supports schools in having the power to exclude pupils where exclusion is used properly as part of an agreed school behaviour policy and as a last resort. The emphasis is on headteachers and schools complying with relevant legislation and statutory guidance and following due process. Schools have a statutory duty not to discriminate against pupils on the basis of protected characteristics, such as disability or race, and the decision to exclude a pupil must always be lawful, reasonable and fair.

Identifying off-rolling

Ofsted acknowledge that off-rolling can be difficult to spot and may take a number of forms. However, they state that it usually involves pressuring a parent to remove their child from a school roll.

An example would be unfairly pressuring families to take a child out of school to avoid an exclusion. In this type of case Ofsted state that many parents simply do not want a permanent exclusion on their child’s record.

Ofsted states that a key concern is the possible use of off-rolling with disadvantaged pupils, such as those with special educational needs or pupils with low prior attainment. Ofsted believes that there is evidence that these pupils are disproportionately removed from school rolls.

The YouGov report - Exploring the issue of off-rolling

The YouGov research examined the views of 1,018 teaching professionals from primary and secondary schools across England.

The survey found that:

  • two thirds of teachers correctly identified off-rolling and a quarter have “seen it happen” in their schools

  • teachers who have seen off-rolling think it is on the rise

  • many education professionals perceive there to be an overlap between off-rolling and other sometimes legitimate practices

  • others believe that the lines between legitimate practices of removing a pupil from a school and off-rolling can be blurred

  • some believe that off-rolling is done to “fix statistics” or improve results for the benefit of the school

  • pupils with behavioural issues are most at risk of being off-rolled

  • also at risk are vulnerable pupils with special educational needs or those with low academic attainment.

Some teachers told researchers of temporarily removing pupils from the school roll to improve absence or exam data during Ofsted inspections. They spoke of “fear-mongering” with parents being given a “worst case scenario” for their child’s future if they remained in the school.

The majority of teachers taking part in the research opposed off-rolling and called for more support for parents to help them resist the practice.

The report follows concerns raised by Ofsted in its 2018 annual report which identified off-rolling as a growing problem. It suggested that annually in England about 19,000 pupils did not progress from year 10 to 11 in the same school and many did not “reappear” in another state school.

Further research published in April 2019 by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) identified nearly 50,000 year 11 pupils in 2016-17 were removed from the school system in “unexplained” circumstances. The EPI states that while the number of official school exclusions is recorded by the Government, too little is known about pupils who are removed from school rolls unofficially.

Action by inspectors

Ofsted recognises that the vast majority of schools always make decisions in the best interests of pupils. However, if pupils are leaving a school to serve the school’s interests, not their own, inspectors are required to identify the fact and take action.

Ofsted state that before an inspection their analysts alert lead inspectors if they identify patterns of unusually high numbers of pupils leaving a school in years 10 and 11. They stress that this does not always mean that off-rolling is happening. However, the alert is intended to warn inspectors about the possibility of off-rolling and prompt inspection teams to explore the issue when they visit.

For example, where inspectors suspect that a disproportionate number of pupils with special educational needs or pupils with low prior attainment are being removed from a school roll, they are encouraged to ask school leaders about who has left and why.

The blog, What is off-rolling, and how does Ofsted look at it on inspection? suggests that inspectors may ask:

  • Are there any patterns in the groups who leave?

  • How does the school support pupils from these groups who are still present?

  • Has the school reviewed their provision and improved it if necessary?

Ofsted state that whenever they uncover off-rolling during an inspection they will include it in the final report. Schools that are adjudged by inspectors to be guilty of the practice are also likely to be graded as “inadequate” for leadership and management under the Education Inspection Framework.

The latest framework was published in May 2019 and takes effect from September. It requires inspectors to judge the effectiveness of leadership and management in a school by evaluating a range of factors. These include “the extent to which school leaders aim to ensure that all learners complete their programmes of study”. The framework goes on to specify that school leaders should provide support for staff to make this possible and to prevent off-rolling.

Conclusion

  • Off-rolling is the practice of removing a pupil from a school roll without using a permanent exclusion, when the removal is primarily in the best interests of the school, rather than the best interests of the pupil.

  • Ofsted view off-rolling as unethical and unacceptable.

  • Heads should be aware of what constitutes off-rolling and ensure that they take all reasonable steps to prevent it.

  • Exclusion must always be used properly and fairly in compliance with statutory guidance.

Further information

The Education Inspection Framework, published by Ofsted in May 2019, can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.

The YouGov report, Exploring the issue of off-rolling, can also be found on the GOV.UK website.

What is off-rolling, and how does Ofsted look at it on inspection? can be found on the Ofsted inspection blog.

The statutory requirements relating to excluding pupils are set out in Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England, published by the Department for Education in September 2017.

Unexplained pupil exits from schools: A growing problem? can be found on the Education Policy Institute website.

Last reviewed 15 July 2019