Nearly 50,000 children disappear from schools without explanation, study finds

‘Disturbing’ number of disappearances may be due to attempts to improve overall exam results

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 18 April 2019 07:09
GCSEs were cancelled when schools closed last month
GCSEs were cancelled when schools closed last month

Nearly 50,000 children have disappeared from school rolls with no explanation, a major study from a think tank has found.

One in 12 pupils from the cohort that spanned year 7 to year 11 in 2016-17 were removed from secondary schools for unofficial reasons, research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggests.

The study focuses only on removals likely to have been instigated by schools to improve their GCSE results or manage budgets, rather than family reasons.

There were 55,300 unexplained exits that were not accounted for by family decisions, involving 49,100 pupils – meaning some students left schools more than once. The numbers have risen in recent years, researchers say.

One in three pupils in the social care system, one in seven disadvantaged pupils and one in eight black pupils experience unexplained school moves, the report sponsored by the National Education Union (NEU) shows.

A small number of schools have particularly high rates of pupil exit, with just 6 per cent of secondary schools in England (330 schools) accounting for almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the unexplained moves.

Watchdog Ofsted has previously criticised schools for “off-rolling” children just before their GCSE exams to boost their results and perform better in the government’s league tables.

David Laws, executive chair of the EPI, said: “The size of unexplained pupil moves is disturbing and will raise concerns about whether some schools are ‘off-rolling’ pupils.”

Jo Hutchinson, report author at EPI, added: “For the first time, we begin to see the full scale of this problem, having stripped away cases where family decisions have led to school moves.

“Our estimate is that one in 12 children are being pushed around the system, and that this has risen in recent years.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “It’s a national scandal that tens of thousands of children are falling off school rolls and potentially out of education altogether.

“There must be a clear responsibility to ensure all children get a great education and are not let down by a fragmented school system.

“But instead of taking action this government continues to drag its feet, failing the most vulnerable.

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Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The data is shocking if not surprising.

“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.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is important not to conflate and condemn all the different reasons a pupil might leave a school’s roll.

“To be clear, the practice of off-rolling a pupil to ‘game’ the data is wrong. But not all unexplained pupil exits are off-rolling, and this report still cannot tell us exactly how widespread bad practice is.”

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