Emma Hardy: Time to stop the scandal of off-rolling troublesome pupils – and leaving them at risk of criminality

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BACK in 2011, when I saw the school system that the coalition Government was creating, I remember standing at a rally and asking the question: “In this brave new world of the educational system that the Government is creating, what happens to the children no school wants?”

The combination of a high-stakes accountability system and reduced school funding has created a perverse incentive for schools to off-roll and discourage certain children from attending mainstream schools.

Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities are in despair. Some are forced into spending thousands of pounds trying to get the resources promised them in their education, health and care plans.

As evidenced by the recent Barnardo’s report, our excluded, or off-rolled, children are vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activity, or to being exploited or groomed.

This is the true educational legacy of the ​coalition Government. It wasted billions on ideologically-driven pet academy projects, a school curriculum that does not meet the needs of all our children, an accountability system that has destroyed teaching careers and has no way of recognising or valuing inclusive schools, and a school system that fails too many of our most vulnerable children.

Let me quote the Ofsted definition of off-rolling: “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.”

I have been reading reports about this. Some of the suggested reasons for the rise in off-rolling include unintended incentives through school performance measures such as Progress 8 to remove lower-performing pupils from a school’s score and financial pressures on schools incentivising the removal of some children from the school roll.

As I know from having been a teacher, it requires more resource to teach and help to develop children who are not performing as well as others than it does to teach a child who is very quick and understands things very easily.

Our Education Committee report – a cross-party report – said in its recommendations: “An unfortunate and unintended consequence of the Government’s strong focus on school standards has led to school environments and practices that have resulted in disadvantaged children being disproportionately excluded, which includes a curriculum with a lack of focus on developing pupils’ social and economic capital.

“There appears to be a lack of moral accountability on the part of many schools and no incentive to, or deterrent to not, retain pupils who could be classed as difficult or challenging.”

That is, let us be honest, a diplomatic way of saying that off-rolling has been caused by the coalition’s changes to education since 2010.

We are talking about improving school standards, so let us look at what standard of education these children get – the ones who are kicked out of schools and not wanted. What happens to them?

Research by Education Datalab published in January 2017 stated that “outcomes for all groups of pupils who leave the roll of a mainstream school are poor”.

It adds: “There exists a previously unidentified group of nearly 20,000 children who leave the rolls of mainstream secondary schools to a range of other destinations for whom outcomes are also very poor, with only six per cent recorded as achieving five good GCSEs.”

Who are the children being off-rolled? Ofsted says – it is not Labour saying this – that “children with special educational needs, children eligible for free school meals, children looked after, and some minority ethnic groups are all more likely to leave their school”.

These children – our neediest children – are being failed by the system that this government introduced, but there are signs of a fightback by the profession.

I pay credit to the Association of School and College Leaders, which has recently established the Ethical Leadership Commission as the beginning of a process ​to articulate the ethical values that should underpin the UK’s education leaders.

I call on the Government to do everything it can to support this and to look again at how the accountability measures can be changed to reward inclusive schools and heads who are genuinely trying to do the right thing.

If we want to improve education standards for all pupils, we need to break with the coalition’s ideology of the past and create and reward inclusive schools that are well-funded, well-resourced to provide the necessary support for all pupils and with the curriculum flexibility to adapt to every child’s need.

We have the answer to the question I asked in 2011. The children that no school wants are rejected, marginalised, failed and left vulnerable to criminal activity. We reap what we sow, and it is time to change.

Emma Hardy is a former teacher and Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle. She spoke in a Commons debate on education – this is an edited version.