“Off-rolling” shows a dark side of the schools market. Labour is right to want to fight it

The practice of excluding under-performing pupils ahead of exams disproportionately affects the less privileged.

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Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s proposals to tackle the problem of “off-rolling” in England’s secondary schools feels like a small but significant moment for the Labour Party, and helps build a wider sense of what the party”s National Education Service might look like in practice.  

It’s a welcome concentration on policy, at a time of often damaging polarisation within the party. At the same time it presents Rayner, who has emerged over the past three years as both a popular and engaging MP and an impressive Commons speaker, as less of an opposition scrapper and more of a secretary of state-in-waiting.

There’s a further reason why Rayner’s determination to tackle off-rolling – one of the ”dark sides” of the schools market – is so welcome. Labour’s proposals tap into an emerging cross-party consensus that something has gone very wrong with our accountability system if schools can succeed largely by ditching vulnerable, low attaining pupils in order to protect or boost their public exam results.

By making concrete proposals for change, Labour puts itself ahead of the curve in terms of reform, particularly as the government has deferred action on this pressing issue, possibly indefinitely.  

The practice of off-rolling has come to prominence over the last couple of years. Education Data Lab, an influential research group, first flagged up the problem as early as 2015, pointing out how schools were ”losing” large numbers of vulnerable and low attaining children, with up to 20,000 children missing from mainstream education by GCSE time.

To make matters worse, these pupils are largely disadvantaged, with those eligible for free school meals and looked-after children most likely to be affected. The problem is particularly severe in parts of inner London.

The problem of informal exclusions was highlighted, albeit in a very different context, when it emerged, in the summer of 2017, that a number of sixth formers at St Olave’s, the highly selective south-east London grammar, had been quietly asked to leave.

According to the head, the students had not meant ”floor standard requirements” in both their internal year 12 and AS-level exams, and were considered likely to pull down the schools’ overall stellar results. The scandal played badly in the public mind leading to the school’s controversial head Aydin Önaç resigning in the winter of 2017.

At the same time, reports from leading bodies in the education world, from Ofsted to a cross-party Select Committee, kept the more substantive issue of poorer children being off-rolled in the headlines throughout 2018.

So what is Rayner exactly proposing? Under Labour’s plans, a school will still be considered responsible for a child’s GCSE results unless or until it has secured a permanent school place for the child concerned, thus discouraging schools from allowing low attaining children to disappear from official sight.  The party would “also close an existing loophole where schools receive funding for pupils a full term before a pupil is added to the pupil rolls for exam purposes, creating a window in which there is an incentive for schools to off-roll pupils”.

Experts in the field have welcomed Rayner’s proposals, although some suggest that they may not go far enough. Philip Nye of the Education Data Lab argues that these proposals are certainly ”better than what we have now”. The fear is that while Labour’s proposals will stop the wholesale disappearance of students, it will not prevent schools pushing weaker pupils into local, weaker, under-subscribed, schools. 

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman