More than 49,000 pupils from a single cohort made ‘unexplained exits’ from school rolls, according to new analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI).

In their research, which was sponsored by the National Education Union (NEU), the EPI used Department for Education (DfE) figures to track pupil exits in three separate cohorts – those who left Year 11 in 2011, in 2014, and in 2017. They removed both formal exclusions and exits due to family reasons from the figures under consideration. The findings are detailed in the EPI’s new report Unexplained pupil exits from schools: a growing problem? The report is being published as a working paper, with an open consultation on the methodology used. 

They found that the proportion of pupils that left school rolls with no explanation was highest in the 2017 cohort, at 8.1 per cent of the pupil population, reflecting 55,300 exits by 49,100 pupils. This compared to 7.2 per cent in the 2014 cohort, and 7.8 per cent in the 2011 cohort. 

The EPI also found that the trend of pupils moving off school rolls without a family reason is concentrated in a small number of schools, with just 330 schools (6 per cent) accounting for 23 per cent of the unexplained exits in the 2017 cohort. This means that in this 6 per cent of schools the equivalent of a whole class of pupils (30 children) was removed from school rolls with no explanation over the course of their secondary education. The EPI plan to release a second report in summer 2019 in which they will examine exactly where in the school system unexplained exits are occurring, and highlight multi-academy trusts and local authorities with particularly high exit rates.

The analysis conducted by the EPI also found that pupils from several vulnerable learner groups were particularly likely to leave schools’ rolls for unknown reasons. For example, one in three pupils in contact with the social care system had an unexplained exit, as did one in seven disadvantaged pupils (categorised as those who had ever been eligible for free school meals). These exits were not accounted for by changes in care placements or changes of address.

Commenting on the findings, the EPI’s executive chairman, David Laws, said: ‘The size of unexplained pupil moves is disturbing and will raise concerns about whether some schools are ‘off-rolling’ pupils.’ Ofsted defines ‘off-rolling’ as removing a pupil, or encouraging a parent to remove their child, from the school roll without a formal exclusion and when ‘the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil’.

Responding to the report Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU commented ‘The data is shocking, if not surprising.’ adding ‘It is urgent that we move beyond the numbers, analyse the real reasons behind these moves, and challenge the government policies which are undermining inclusive and high-quality education.’

A spokesperson for the DfE said ‘No headteacher goes into the job to remove a pupil from school – and no headteacher takes the decision to do so lightly. Schools will typically have gone through a number of sanctions before exclusion is considered, taking into account the welfare of other pupils in the classroom. It is against the law to remove pupils on the basis of academic results – any school that does it is breaking the law.’

Full EPI report:

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10 February 2020 (PDF 4.92 MB)

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