Last reviewed on 18 March 2019
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There's been an increasing focus on the practice of 'off-rolling'. The new Ofsted inspection framework has guidelines for reviewing all forms of exclusion, including off-rolling. Find out what it is, which pupils are more likely to be affected, and why it might be happening.

What off-rolling is

The Ofsted definition

To assist inspectors in their conversations with schools, Ofsted uses the following definition from its most recent annual report:

‘Off-rolling is the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil. Off-rolling in these circumstances is a form of ‘gaming’.'

Why inspectors are looking for off-rolling

Between 2016 and 2017, 19,000 pupils dropped off school rolls - i.e. they failed to progress from year 10 to 11 in the same school. Of these pupils, 9,700 disappeared from school rolls altogether. 

There are many reasons why pupils might move school in a year, but the relatively high impact on vulnerable pupils and the significance of that year group - it happens in the middle of GCSE courses - led Ofsted to analyse their data for evidence of off-rolling.

Under Ofsted's inspection handbook for 2019, the leadership and management of a school will likely be judged inadequate if off-rolling is taking place (see paragraph 255).

What off-rolling can look like

Off-rolling is a matter of motive, so the new guidance requires inspectors to consider potential off-rolling in context: 

  • Managed moves: transferring a pupil to another school - even with the agreement of the parents and the receiving school - if it serves the interests of the school but not the best interests of the child
  • Alternative provision: moving pupils into alternative provision to prevent them from being counted in the January census
  • Home schooling: schools coercing parents to educate at home as the only alternative to permanent exclusion
  • Permanent exclusions instead of suspensions (fixed-term exclusions): schools are required to fund alternative provision for suspensions (fixed-term exclusions), but the cost passes to the local authority (LA) in a permanent exclusion
  • Permanently excluding pupils with special educational needs (SEN) who have highest needs: schools can sometimes keep the place funding they received for pupils with SEN even if they leave in the middle of the year, providing incentive to off-roll those pupils whose needs are greatest
  • Unlawful exclusions: excluding a pupil for reasons other than behaviour or using a process that isn't in line with statutory guidelines

You can find these examples in Ofsted's guidance to inspectors from September 2018, and in a briefing paper published by the House of Commons.

What off-rolling isn't

The Ofsted definition for off-rolling also includes what it isn't:

'There are many reasons why a school might remove a pupil from the school roll, such as when a pupil moves house or a parent decides (without coercion from the school) to home-educate their child. This is not off-rolling.

If a school removes a pupil from the roll due to a formal permanent exclusion and follows the proper processes, this is not off-rolling.’

A formal exclusion is not off-rolling. In fact, off-rolling is the opposite of formal exclusion in that it happens when a school doesn't use formal exclusion procedures (or uses formal procedures for improper reasons) in the school's interests over the interests of the pupil.

But they're related because they can both be attempts to manage poor behaviour and are both included in the number of pupils that move school each year.

Why schools might be off-rolling

There's a lot of finger-pointing about the causes of off-rolling. Research points to 2 main causes: school performance measures and funding.

Focus on school performance incentivises off-rolling

The focus on school performance, like the progress 8 measure, is seen as a culprit because schools off-roll pupils who might negatively impact their results.

Pupils count towards a school's progress 8 measure if they're registered on the school's census in year 11. Although calculating progress 8 takes prior attainment into consideration, some students only start to fall behind in secondary school. This could be due to medical reasons or because they were better supported in their primary schools. 

Whatever the cause, these pupils can have a negative impact on a school's overall scores. Indeed, off-rolling can significantly improve a school's standing in the performance tables. Education Datalab found that when a school's league table standing is reweighted to include all pupils that started there in year 10, GCSE pass rates dropped as much as 17 percentage points.

Ever-shrinking budgets balanced against providing for those with the greatest needs

As schools face more funding cuts, pupils with SEN are particularly at risk, especially those who don't get extra protection through an education, health and care (EHC) plan.

When schools are struggling to afford sufficient staff, there's a financial incentive to off-roll pupils with SEN because the school feels they're not able to provide for the pupil. This pupil then becomes the local authority's responsibility but it isn't always in the pupil's best interests. 

In oral evidence given to the Education Committee on October 23, 2018, Justin Cooke (Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Ambitious about Autism) said:

"It can come down to the ethos of the school and to whether they really want to keep those children, but it can also come down to the desperation of the school leaders. Lots of schools are running at a deficit. Lots of them cannot pay their teachers or repair their buildings. They may think it is the final straw and they have to make cuts somewhere. If they can save money by off-rolling some children for whom the local authority can provide, they might do it. I think it is a desperation measure by some schools."

Off-rolling by numbers

Who's being off-rolled?

It's likely that vulnerable pupils are most at-risk. Of the 19,000 pupils identified as having moved in the Ofsted study linked to above:

  • 30% had SEN, compared to the national average of 13%
  • 54% qualified for free school meals, compared to the national average of 28%

The study also identified looked-after children and some minority ethnic groups as being more likely to leave their schools at this crucial time.

Who's doing the off-rolling?

Though there's evidence that off-rolling occurs in all phases of education, recent studies have focused on its impact at secondary level.

Ofsted created a statistical model to determine what proportion of secondary pupils it would naturally expect to see leave each school between years 10 and 11. It used this model to identify schools that were above what was expected: 

  •  810 schools lost 5 or more pupils, or at least 5% of the year 10 class
  •  Of these, 560 schools were 'significantly above expectation' in terms of pupil movements
  •  And of these, 300 schools were above expectations for the last 2 years covered in the study 

Ofsted also discovered that incidence of possible off-rolling wasn't spread evenly through the sector:

  •  London has a higher proportion of movement compared to the rest of the country
  •  Academies - especially those in multi-academy trusts - lose proportionately more pupils than maintained schools

To learn what you can do to prevent off-rolling, read this.