Scrap league tables and boost SEND training to beat off-rolling

Scrap league tables and boost SEND training to beat off-rolling

No sooner had the Exclusions Review announced that off-rolling of pupils is “rare”, Ofsted comes along with research that indicates quite the opposite. I wasn’t going to write about this as I’ve had a really long week, but the more I scrolled through the report, the more cross I became and felt we had to record it on the SNJ site.

The Ofsted report, Exploring the issue of off-rolling, finds that a quarter of teachers have seen off-rolling happen in their schools. Two-thirds of these teachers believe the practice is on the rise. The study was based on a YouGov survey of over 1000 teachers, and shows that teachers think parents who don’t understand the school system or their child’s rights within it are the most likely to be pressured into removing their child from the school.

In summary, the report found:

  1. There’s mixed understanding of what off-rolling is, but many are aware that it’s happening and that it’s on the increase.
  2. Many education professionals perceive there to be an overlap between off-rolling and other (sometimes legitimate) practices.
  3. Off-rolling is triggered by league table position - both SLT and classroom teachers feel the pressure of needing to maintain high performance and good Ofsted ratings.
  4. Vulnerable students, with SEN or other needs, are more likely to be affected.
  5. While schools may say pupils are off-rolled due to behaviour, teachers personally believe academic achievement is more important in the decision making.
  6. It’s an informal process, during which schools collect data on behaviour and correspondence with the parents.
  7. Parents are pressured to accept off-rolling and many teachers think more support is needed for them, especially for those with the least understanding of their children’s rights and/or EAL needs.
  8. A minority would like to see more support for schools around how to deal with low attendance/SEN pupils when all other possible solutions have been exhausted.

So, many teachers don’t know what it is - perhaps their school genuinely never does it, or perhaps some may have not recognised it for what it was - maybe some parents take their children out of school for the fun of it. It’s also done 'behind the scenes’ but some teachers suspect a child has been given the underhand heave-ho if they've been asked to provide evidence on the pupil’s behaviour and they are known to be a low academic achiever, or if a pupil leaves abruptly. But to help those who aren’t sure what off-rolling is, here is Ofsted’s definition:

Off-rolling is the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without using a permanent exclusion, when the removal is primarily in the best interests of the school, rather than the the best interests of the pupil. This includes pressuring a parent to remove their child from the school roll. While it may not always be unlawful, Ofsted believes off-rolling is never acceptable.

Dan Owen HMI, Specialist Adviser for school inspection policy, Ofsted

Only a third of teachers who'd experienced off-rolling believed that the pupils went on to other mainstream schools, and only a fifth said that there was any follow-up to check what had happened to pupils. Probably a case of out of sight, out of mind and anyway, what a relief they’ve gone…?

“We’re not consulted before, I've never been involved in making those decisions… children just disappear.” said one secondary academy teacher, showing either a stunning lack of curiosity or perhaps more accurately, they just know not to ask too many questions. Some spoke of “fear-mongering”, with school management giving parents a “worst case scenario” for their child’s future if they remained in the school.

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Behavioural issues used as an excuse

The report indicates that those teachers who are aware of what off-rolling is, are suspicious of claims that behaviour is central to schools’ decision-making when pupils are off-rolled. Half of those that responded to the survey said the main reason for schools to off-roll a pupil is to manipulate league tables. But if the child has behavioural issues as well, it’s easier— and perhaps more “acceptable” to blame that than openly admit the child was just ruining their figures.

To further this view, the report found teachers agree that off-rolling usually happens before GCSEs, either during years 10 to 11 before results are collected, or in year 9 before exam teaching begins. But for Ofsted, this is one of the statistics that triggers a concern of analysts.

"Before an inspection, Ofsted’s analysts give the lead inspector information about whether or not a school has exceptional levels of pupils leaving the school in years 10 and 11. Of course, this doesn’t always mean that off-rolling is happening. But it makes sure that inspectors explore this possibility during the inspection.

We know that disadvantaged pupils, those with special educational needs, and pupils with low prior attainment are disproportionately removed from the school roll. Inspectors will ask leaders about who has left and why. Are there any patterns in the groups who leave? How do they support pupils from these groups who are still in the school? For example, if most of the pupils who left have special educational needs and/or disabilities, how does the school cater for this group? Have they reviewed their provision and improved it if necessary?

Dan Owen HMI, Specialist Adviser for school inspection policy, Ofsted
Teachers who’ve seen off-rolling think it happens a fair amount in their local area and many think it’s on the rise
Image from Ofsted/YouGov report

However, you may recall in Catriona Moore’s article when Ofsted inspectors at the SEND Inquiry were put on the spot about off-rolling: "Ofsted were on the back foot on this, agreeing that ‘it isn’t right’, but that reports from parents about off-rolling can be difficult to corroborate when inspectors visit schools. Nonetheless, Gill Jones stated that the reason off-rolling is so prominent in Ofsted’s new education inspection framework is because of their concern about the prevalence of off-rolling of children with SEND."

Ofsted is not happy with the results of the survey which does show it’s far from ‘rare'

These are troubling findings. While not every school is off-rolling, teachers tell us that some are clearly pushing vulnerable pupils out through the back door with little thought to their next steps and best interests.

Ofsted takes a dim view of off-rolling. When inspectors uncover evidence of this happening we make it clear in our inspection reports. And under our new inspection regime, taking effect in September, schools found to be off-rolling are likely to be rated inadequate for their leadership and management.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector

Teachers said in the survey they want to see both better support to help parents understand their rights and options and also better support for schools to address special educational needs and other behaviours that are linked to off-rolling. One teacher said that parents are sometimes not aware of the huge impact on their life of taking their child out of school. He said parents don't know they can say, 'if you don't want my child then it's your responsibility to find another school where my child can go’. In particular, children whose parents don’t speak English well don’t have enough support to understand letters.

Off-rolling often happens informally and when evidence is collected, it’s rarely academic
Chart from Ofsted/YouGov report

It’s also about training...

It’s possible to blame the Government, via Ofsted, that it’s the fault of performance league tables and the competitive nature of exam results for the rise of off-rolling. Indeed, just today the Tes reports Labour’s shadow early years minister, Tracy Brabin, warning about the impact of exam and testing pressure on both pupils and school staff as another devastating consequence of this educational one-upmanship.

And while I agree, absolutely, that league tables have a lot to answer for, the other issue is training. If school heads had more of an interest in and knowledge of, special educational needs, then they might actually care more about helping disabled children meet their potential rather than seeing them as a drain on precious resources. As Malcolm Reeve pointed out in this post, school leaders often have far too little understanding or interest in SEND

We were promised after the Carter review of teacher training way back in 2015, that SEND would be part of Initial Teacher Training (ITT). But by all accounts, it still makes up a very small segment, even though training teachers to help children with additional needs helps the entire class in the end.

Although again, this wouldn’t touch senior leaders. That’s why the work I’m involved in with Nasen and Whole School SEND on training the SEND leadership workforce is vitally important— if only they pay attention to it when it’s finished. There is already some information for school leaders about SEND leadership here on the SEND Gateway

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...And funding

The report detailed how one Deputy Headteacher in a ‘struggling’ primary school, said they’d hired two members of staff to support a SEN pupil with very complex needs but the child’s EHCP funding had been delayed, which meant that the staff were being funded directly from the school’s tight budget.

And of course this doesn’t even include children who might benefit from the additional funding that an EHCP might bring but who doesn’t, for whatever reason, have one. Schools don’t like expensive or unruly pupils and definitely not those who are both of those things. This is also known as an ‘uninclusive' school.

Five points to support inclusive schools

So if the Government really wants to encourage inclusive schools, they should

  1. Hurry up and get training ALL teachers in SEND right from ITT all the way up to the top. I know that this is underway but it’s a big job and requires sustained funding.
  2. And while we’re talking money, they need to dig deep at the Spending Review and fund SEND properly and sustainably (and don’t forget to feed into the consultation about that).
  3. Then, they should scrap league tables. That takes away one ‘incentive’ to off-roll, as well as reducing one pressure on children over exams. This has the bonus of supporting mental health.
  4. Ofsted reports should be focused on child well-being and all-round achievement of a broad curriculum.
  5. SATS and other published testing should also be scrapped. My sons’ school, More House, didn’t use SATS (it’s an independent specialist school) and yet boys who arrived unable to read or write at age eight or nine, who had failed to thrive in mainstream (and may have been off-rolled), still leave with a bundle of top-grade GCSEs. Staff are properly trained, pupils are treated holistically and a large percentage of them are funded by EHCPs— yet it’s not a hugely expensive school. If they can do it, why can’t Academies whose executive heads are earning six-figure salaries?

There is only one reason why not—and that is the will to do it

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two young adults with autism. Tania is a member of the Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, the Ofsted SEND Inspections Stakeholders Group, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Royal Holloway, University of London Centre of Gene and Cell Therapy.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Tania Tirraoro
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