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As the annual furore of GCSEs died down last week (28 Aug), the Times led with a front page splash on an increasingly concerning and complex matter which is becoming part of the annual narrative around exams.

Etymologically, the term ‘off-rolling’ feels like a new addition to the canon of educational terminology, but clearly the alleged practice suggested by the data presented by the Times, is recognised sufficiently throughout the sector to warrant the creation of a new verb.

The notion that a school might expel less able students to enhance exam results and maintain or improve its position in the league tables, is certainly unpalatable, but evidence suggests it is happening and increasingly so.

The number of pupils ‘disappearing’ during GCSEs has risen by a third this year. Ofsted has identified 300 schools with high dropout rates and chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, says it ‘absolutely could get worse’.

In response to the allegations that some schools are removing pupils from their registers so that their results do not negatively affect the school in league tables, a Department for Education spokesperson said:

Informal or unofficial exclusions are unlawful and we wrote to schools last year to remind them of the rules on exclusions. Any school ‘off rolling’ on the basis of academic results is quite simply breaking the law.

Any decision to exclude a pupil should be reasonable and fair, and permanent exclusion should only ever be used as a last resort. Our statutory guidance for schools states that they must consider the underlying causes of poor behaviour before excluding a pupil.

While we know that there has been an increase in exclusions there are still fewer than the peak ten years ago. We have launched an externally led review to look at how exclusions are used and why certain groups are disproportionally affected.

The practice of excluding pupils based on academic results is not only unacceptable, but also unlawful. Exclusions should only ever be used as a last resort to combat poor behaviour.

However it is important to note that not every child who disappears from a school’s register has been excluded – some may have moved away or entered independent education.

Of the 30,000 teenagers who have not had GCSE results recorded in league tables since 2015, despite being on their school’s roll a year before, some may have been sent to a pupil referral unit (PRU).

Alarmingly, the Times reports that of the 1,500 children aged 10 and under taught in exclusion units, a significant number are five-year-olds. Or an alternative explanation may be that the teenagers may have dropped out of the system due to relocation, or some may have indeed voted with ‘their feet’ and simply chosen not to attend school or turn up for their final exams.

Are children and young people increasingly displaying behaviour which warrants exclusion from school? Or have we just become more sophisticated at tracking them and analysing the data available?

At the risk of seeming nostalgic for a golden age that never was, during my time as a teacher, expelling a pupil was not a common occurrence, it was very much a last resort.

In my experience schools do everything possible to support all learners in mainstream education, working with multiple agencies as necessary, to support the individual, and often extending this support to their guardian(s) too.

In one of the schools I taught in we did on occasion ‘receive’ some students who transferred to us in search of a fresh start, and for the majority this worked and had a positive impact on them. They were able to leave their reputations behind and refocus themselves with the help of the school, teachers and support staff.

I think there are two aspects to the problem:

1. Accountability and Progress 8

In July the Education Committee examined the issue and in their report "Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions", said that ‘accountability and Progress 8 was a major factor.’

Certainly the pressures of performance measures mean GCSE grades are ascribed a greater value than ever before.

If we judge schools almost entirely by exam results, then we should expect an exam-factory culture and recognise that such a culture will inevitably let some students down.

2. Narrowing of the curriculum

Secondly, the national curriculum is increasingly becoming narrower with a purely academic focus and leading to a knowledge based, rote-learning culture. The scramble to increase EBacc uptake and deliver the requisite grades, means subjects such as music, art, drama and design and technology are being driven off the time table to make room for more maths, English and science.

Students who struggle with these core subjects often find themselves in a constant cycle of more maths, more English, and are subject to so much intervention to get their grades up that their motivation and willingness to learn are detrimentally affected. In the worst case scenario their behaviour may also deteriorate as they are frustrated and have little sense of achievement.

Sadly, it’s not just creative and technical subjects which are being dropped. Analysis by TES found that between 2011 and 2017, the number of hours for PE and PHSE have been reduced dramatically, by 21 per cent and 47 per cent respectively at key stage 4.

So if you’re creative or have a talent for music or enjoy problem solving or building things, but your school day is filled with learning facts and knowledge and being constantly tested, chances are you are going to become disengaged from education pretty quickly.

Extra-curricular opportunities

Furthermore, youngsters from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to have access to extra-curricular activities like their better off peers or the cultural capital or the means to take advantage of opportunities which may be afforded to them.

At Edge we believe all children and young people should have access to a coherent and holistic education, not only rich in subject knowledge, but developing an inquiring, creative mind set and equipping them with the resilience, team-working and communication skills.

School is a place where youngsters should be inspired, develop a love of subjects that interest them, and in doing so develop the skills and attributes which are essential to become life-long learners, have successful future careers and ultimately positive contributors to UK PLC.

From Leonardo di Vinci to Steve Jobs to Einstein, some of humanity’s greatest inventors, creatives and problem-solvers have not followed the traditional routes at the time and struggled to find their place in the world.

All children and young people are entitled to the education and support they need to find their talent and fulfil their potential. Our increasingly restrictive system is in danger of alienating more and more youngsters who don’t ‘fit’ or are disengaged by our archaic curriculum.

Simply disenfranchising those whose capabilities can’t be measured by our antediluvian exam system, shows a lack of vision only matched by the blind conviction that the best way to thrive in our global digital economy, is to possess a clutch of 9 grade GCSEs.

We urgently need to reconsider what we want our education system to achieve and whether it is fit for purpose.

Surely, all our young people have the right to leave school having been given the opportunity to make the most of their talents, fulfilling their potential.

Helen Beardmore, Education Delivery Manager, Edge

About the Author: Helen has had a varied career in education since graduating with a Geography degree from University College of Wales Aberystwyth. Helen went on to complete her PGCE at Sheffield University before teaching in Rotherham and Nottingham for 15 years. Whilst in Nottingham Helen started to diversify teaching Applied Leisure and Tourism and, Business and as a result of which became a Lead Practitioner for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) specialising and sharing best practice in curriculum development and resources.

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