The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has published the most comprehensive analysis to date of unexplained pupil exits from English schools, using over a decade’s worth of Department for Education data.

The research improves on estimates of the potential size of so-called “off-rolling” in the school system – where schools informally remove pupils in order to boost GCSE results, or for other reasons.

You can read the full report here.

Scope of the research

While the number of official school exclusions is recorded by the government, too little has been known about the phenomenon of pupils who are removed from school rolls unofficially. These unexplained pupil moves are not consistently recorded or regulated.

This new report, which is sponsored by the National Education Union (NEU), fills this evidence gap by examining the prevalence of unexplained pupil exits nationally. The study considers unexplained pupil moves that have taken place both between schools, and those involving pupils leaving the school system entirely.

The research is the most comprehensive to date examining unexplained pupil exits in the school system. For the first time, it takes into account pupils removed from school rolls due to family reasons.

The report draws on data spanning over a decade, and tracks pupil exits in three separate age groups, through their whole time in secondary education, from year 7-11:

  • The 2017 cohort – pupils in the age group who joined year 7 in 2012, and left year 11 in 2017.
  • The 2014 cohort – pupils in the age group who joined year 7 in 2009, and left year 11 in 2014.
  • The 2011 cohort – pupils in the age group who joined year 7 in 2006, and left year 11 in 2011.

This report is the first of two that EPI will publish on unexplained pupil exits. The second report (October 2019) will incorporate feedback on the methodology used, before examining in which local areas and groups of schools unexplained pupil moves are happening.

Key findings

Prevalence of unexplained pupil exits from school rolls

Over the past decade, a considerable number of pupils have left school rolls in England, moving to a different school or leaving the state school system completely, for entirely unknown reasons:

  • The proportion of pupils that have left school rolls with no explanation is highest in the most recent cohort in our study – those expected to have completed year 11 in 2017.
  • In this most recent school year group, as many as 8.1 per cent of the entire pupil population were subject to moves that cannot be accounted for (with over 55,300 exits by 49,100 pupils).
  • This is higher than those that were due to finish year 11 in 2014. For these pupils, 7.2 per cent moved between schools or left the school system completely, and this was not explained by family reasons for moving (with around 49,100 exits by 44,300 pupils).
  • In the 2011 year group, over the course of 5 years, 7.8 per cent of pupils had moves that were unexplained by family reasons (with over 47,200 exits by 46,800 pupils).

Schools with the most unexplained pupil moves

The trend of pupils moving off school rolls without a family reason is highly concentrated in a small number of schools:

  • Just 330 schools in England – 1 in 20 (or 6 per cent of schools) account for almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the total number of unexplained pupil exits in the school system, in the 2017 cohort.
  • In these 6 per cent of schools, the equivalent of an entire class of pupils (30 children) from one year group was removed from the school rolls with no explanation over the course of secondary school.
  • EPI’s second report (summer 2019) will examine exactly where these unexplained pupil exits in the school system are occurring, and will highlight multi-academy trusts (MATs) and local authorities with particularly high exit rates.

Pupil groups most likely to experience unexplained exits from school rolls

Several vulnerable learner pupil groups are particularly likely to leave schools’ rolls for unknown reasons. Such moves are not accounted for by changes in care placements or changes of address. The following have been subject to an unexplained exit:

  • 1 in 3 pupils in contact with the social care system.
  • 1 in 7 disadvantaged pupils (those ever eligible for free school meals).
  • 1 in 8 pupils from black ethnic backgrounds.
  • 1 in 8 pupils with low attainment at primary school.
  • 1 in 3 pupils who have experienced an official permanent exclusion, or 1 in 5 of those who have experienced an official fixed period exclusion.
  • 2 in 5 pupils of all pupils who had experienced a high number of authorised school absences during their time at secondary school.