Jonny Uttley

Why are schools ‘off-rolling’ pupils?

Schools dramatically change a child’s life chances, as I’ve seen in my 24 years of teaching. How we measure their performance couldn’t be more important, but in recent years it’s gone wrong.

The key metric that secondary schools in England are judged on is called ‘Progress 8’. It looks at the progress that students make across eight subjects from the end of primary school to GCSE, and then ranks schools against each other. It’s zero-sum: for every winner, there is a loser. Some school leaders treat ‘good’ scores with humility and caution. Others plaster their badge everywhere.

However, it’s too easy to game the system and too many schools are taking advantage in ugly ways. The published figures do not tell us which students are counted in a school’s data and which aren’t.

The most egregious example is ‘off-rolling’ pupils, which is technically illegal but there are some wheezes. Years ago, some school leaders worked out that if you remove underperforming students from your roll before January, then they are not counted on the school’s results. Schools would move them into ‘alternative provision’, and then they won’t come up in the figures. Some pupils are marked down as ‘guests’, a status that usually describes children who are between schools. This toxic practice reached its peak in 2017 when 49,000 Year 11 students disappeared from rolls without explanation.

This is the government’s mess to sort out

Ofsted, the regulator, initially called out a few high-profile cases. But a recent report from the Centre for Social Justice has again identified sharp spikes in Year 11 students moving off mainstream rolls to pupil referral units shortly before the January census. Not all of these moves will be improper, but the writers of the report conclude that some schools ‘are removing pupils with lower attainment, who could compromise the school’s overall performance data’.

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