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Thousands of pupils in England routinely removed from schools with no apparent explanation

EPI publishes second detailed study on unexplained pupil exits, highlighting school groups with the highest rates  

Today (11 Oct), the Education Policy Institute (EPI) will publish its second detailed report on unexplained pupil exits from English schools.

Commenting on the new research, Jo Hutchinson, report author and Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute, said:   

“This research shows that there are thousands of pupils in England routinely removed from schools with no apparent explanation. While certain groups of schools display very high rates of pupil exits, it is also clear that this phenomenon pervades the entire school system, and requires intervention at a national level.

“The overwhelming majority of exits from school rolls are experienced by more vulnerable pupils, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities. The government should reduce perverse incentives for schools and do more to promote inclusion – only then will it help to prevent those with more complex needs from being moved around the system”.

Rt. Hon. David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said:

“These figures are disturbing and show that 1 in 10 pupils leave their school during secondary education for reasons that may not be in their interests. Almost half of these children fail to return to mainstream schools and it is concerning that the government has so little information on where many of them end up.

“Vulnerable children, including those in care and in poverty, are particularly at risk of having their education disrupted in this way – adding further disadvantage to the barriers they already face.

“While it is clear that this is an issue across the schools system, it is notable that in some school groups children are from twice to six times more at risk of an unexplained move than the average. School leaders, Ofsted, and the Department for Education should look closely at those multi-academy trusts and local authorities with the worst records, to see what can be done to address their apparently worrying outcomes”.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The National Education Union is pleased to sponsor this significant study which lays bare the facts of off-rolling. Sixty-nine thousand unexplained pupil exits from schools is a shocking figure and one which the Government needs to address. That pupils with complex needs are most likely to fall out of the school system shows that as a country we are failing our most vulnerable children.

“The reasons are complex, and providing guidance or policing schools will not solve the issue. Funding cuts to local authority support services and access to child mental health services are also making an impact on a school’s ability to support children most in need. 

“It calls for further investigation that large multi-academy trusts, many of whom have been lauded by Government for vastly improved results, have higher than average unexplained exits.

“The performance culture in schools, where high GCSE grades and Progress 8 scores are what counts, needs to change. We need a clearer vision of a school system which includes all children and young people, an accountability system which doesn’t treat pupils with complex needs as an afterthought, and adequate funding which enables schools to meet pupils needs.”

Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Boards, Cllr Judith Blake said:

“Councils share the concerns outlined in this report about children leaving school without an explanation, which may not be in the best interests of the child.  

“This is why we support moves by Ofsted to look at numbers of exclusions or pupil exits when inspecting schools and levels of inclusion of children with special educational needs when a school is graded.

“We are also calling for councils to be given the powers and funding to hold all schools to account where there is evidence of unexplained pupil exits.”

Angela Rayner MP, Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“The Tories’ academy system is simply not fit for purpose. They have thrown money at an academy and free school programme that is not improving outcomes for pupils and is characterised by a worrying lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to school exclusions, bumper salaries for executives at multi-academy trusts and financial mismanagement.

“Labour will end the forced conversion of local schools to academies, scrap the free school programme and instead focus on delivering the best results for pupils and giving power back to the communities so that our schools are run by the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities.

“It is a scandal that thousands of children are falling off school rolls and often out of the education system altogether, denying them an education and leaving them at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs. Labour will address the scandal of informal school exclusions by ending the perverse incentives in our education system. The next Labour will government will stop schools receiving funding for pupils that disappear off school rolls, and ensure that schools are responsible for the outcomes of all pupils who disappear off school rolls or are excluded until another permanent school place is found for them.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“While we back head teachers in having robust behaviour policies and to use permanent exclusions as a last resort, we are clear that it is against the law to remove pupils on the basis of academic results. Any school that does this is simply breaking the law, but unexplained pupil exits is not the same as off-rolling.

“As this report highlights, the increase in unexplained exits is small and there are not large differences between exits in Multi-Academy Trusts and Local Authorities, and we will continue to work with Ofsted to tackle off-rolling in any setting.”

“Unexplained pupil exits is not the same as off-rolling. There may be legitimate, but unexplained, reasons why there are pupil exits, and not all unexplained pupil exits are illegitimate or constitute off-rolling. There are legitimate reasons for permanent exclusion and the Timpson Review into exclusions found widespread good practice in the use of exclusions.

“Ofsted already considers records of children taken off roll and has published their revised framework that has a strengthened focus on this: Ofsted has already handed down judgements of Requires Improvement and Inadequate where they have found cases of off-rolling. Where pupils are excluded the quality of education they receive should be no different than mainstream settings and we are taking a range of actions to drive up the quality of alternative provision

“This Government has announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade which will give every school more money for every child. we are investing a total of £14bn more in schools over the next three years to 2022-23. This money will allow schools to invest more in teachers and resources to ensure that all children get the top quality education they deserve. 85% of children are now in good or outstanding schools compared to just 66% in 2010.”

The new study builds on previous EPI research, providing the most refined estimate to date of the potential size of so-called “off-rolling” in the school system – the practice of schools informally removing pupils, in order to boost GCSE results or to manage pressures on special educational needs and other budgets.

For the first time, the report also reveals which local authorities and multi-academy trusts have the highest rates of unexplained exits in their schools. 

Key findings

  • There are multiple school groups with very high rates of unexplained pupil exits in their schools. High pupil exit rates are evident in both multi-academy trusts and local authorities.
  • Some groups have rates of unexplained exits which are as much as six times the average rate, while other groups have none.
  • Large multi-academy trusts all have higher than average rates of unexplained exits and most also have above average rates of permanent school exclusions.
  • Nationally, there is a high proportion of unexplained exits from schools: 1 in 10 pupils (10.1%) in the most recent 2017 cohort. This totals over 69,000 exits in this year group, and has increased from 2014 (9.0%).
  • Vulnerable pupils are more likely to experience an unexplained exit, including almost 1 in 3 in social care, 1 in 6 with special educational needs, 1 in 6 poorer pupils and 1 in 7 black pupils.

Scope of the research

While the number of official school exclusions is recorded by the government, less is known about the practice of schools removing pupils by other, informal means – a practice often referred to as “off-rolling”. These pupil exits are not consistently recorded or regulated.

In April 2019, EPI published a report examining the prevalence of unexplained exits at a national level, for the first time highlighting the full scale of the phenomenon. The study considered pupil exits that did not appear to be instigated by families, examining both those that had taken place between schools, and those involving pupils leaving the school system entirely

This final report, which is sponsored by the National Education Union (NEU), builds on the initial research by:

  • Refining national estimates on unexplained pupil exits, using an improved methodology.
  • Revealing, for the first time, which school groups have the highest rates of unexplained pupil exits (see local authority and multi-academy trust breakdowns below).

Findings in full

Unexplained pupil exits at a local level

  • Very high rates of unexplained pupil exits from schools are evident among several local authorities (LAs) and multi-academy trusts (MATs) in England.
  • In over a dozen school groups, a pupil is at least twice as likely to experience an unexplained exit than the average, with those in the highest school group six times as likely.
  • While there is not a large difference between MATs and LAs in rates of unexplained exits, overall, larger MATs have above average rates. Most of these MATs also have above average rates of permanent school exclusions.
  • Within some school groups, unexplained exits are concentrated in a small number of schools. In the year group that finished their GCSEs in 2017, two MATs and seven LAs have one school which lost at least the equivalent of an entire class of pupils (30 children) over five years.  

Unexplained pupil exits nationally

  • Nationally, the latest figures indicate a very high rate of exits from schools: as many as 1 in 10 pupils (10.1 per cent) in the 2017 cohort experienced exits at some point during their time at secondary school that cannot be accounted for. This totals over 69,000 unexplained exits by over 61,000 pupils.
  • The proportion of pupils that left school rolls with no explanation is higher in this most recent 2017 school year group. In the previous cohort in the study – those that finished their GCSEs in 2014 – the latest figures show that 1 in 11 pupil exits (9.0 per cent) could not be accounted for (totalling around 62,000 exits by over nearly 56,000 pupils).
  • A significant proportion of all pupils experiencing an unexplained exit fail to return to the school system ever again: as many as 4 in 10 (24,000) pupils experiencing an unexplained exit in the 2017 cohort did not return at all.  

Which pupils are more likely to experience an unexplained exit from schools?

The overwhelming majority of unexplained exits – around three quarters – are experienced by vulnerable pupils. They include:

  • Over 1 in 3 (36.2%) of all pupils who had also experienced a permanent exclusion;
  • Around 1 in 3 (29.8%) of all ‘looked after’ pupils (those in social care);
  • Over 1 in 4 (27.0%) of all pupils with identified mental health needs (SEMH);
  • Around 1 in 6 (15.6%) of all poorer pupils (those who have ever been on free school meals);
  • Around 1 in 6 (15.7%) of all pupils with identified special educational needs (SEND);
  • Around 1 in 7 (13.9%) of all pupils from black ethnic backgrounds.

Unexplained exits by Ofsted grade

  • A majority of pupils experiencing unexplained exits (52%) fail to join any school in the term immediately following the exit.  
  • Of those that do enter into a school (with an Ofsted grade) in the term following the exit (45%) these pupils are generally not moving to a higher rated school. Just over a quarter of these pupils (28.6%) join a school that is rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate.’

Policy recommendations

  • Far better data, monitoring and transparency around pupil moves in the school system is urgently required. This is especially the case for ‘voluntary’ managed moves between schools, as well as pupil moves out of the system into home schooling. Decisions on extra support for pupils with SEND should be made independently, rather than by local authorities that are also responsible for delivering that support
  • The government should improve guidance given to schools, so that it genuinely recognises the complex causes of pupils’ behavioural difficulties, and offers schools clear information and training on their responsibility to support pupils with SEND.
  • School performance and accountability measures should take account of the vulnerability of pupil intakes, and reward more inclusive schools. The system should promote a broader conception of school performance, that accounts for children’s health and development.
  • The government’s review of high needs funding should consider implementing a funding allocation system that promotes inclusion and early support for children with SEND.

Local authorities and multi-academy trusts with the highest rates of unexplained pupil exits from their schools (2017 cohort)


The Education Policy Institute (EPI) is an independent, impartial, and evidence-based research institute that promotes high quality education outcomes, regardless of social background. We achieve this through data-led analysis, innovative research and high-profile events. 

Scope of the study: the research considers unexplained pupil exits that have taken place both between schools, and those involving pupils leaving the school system entirely. The research takes into account pupils removed from school rolls due to family reasons (such as moving house or migrating out of England), leaving only pupil removals that are likely to be instigated by schools.

School year groups analysed: this report considers two cohorts, totalling over one million pupils: the 2017 cohort (pupils in the age group who joined year 7 in 2012, and left year 11 in 2017) and the 2014 cohort (pupils in the age group who joined year 7 in 2009, and left year 11 in 2014).

Concluding report: this publication is the second report by EPI on unexplained pupil exits in the school system. This final report is the most comprehensive study to date exploring this phenomenon in England’s schools: it builds on the first EPI report published in April 2019, ‘Unexplained pupil exits from schools: A growing problem?’.

Consultation: following the publication of the April report, EPI received feedback on its methodology from groups including the DfE, Ofsted, the LGA, several multi-academy trusts, local authority maintained schools, children’s charities and parents.

Methodology changes: after having consulted on the methodology, amendments to reflect this feedback were made. Some of these amendments have added more exits into the unexplained category, while others have reduced the number of unexplained exits. In total, the changes resulted in the proportion of unexplained exits increasing at a national level. Further details on these methodological changes are set out in the full report.

‘Managed moves’ – pupil moves between schools that are claimed to have been voluntary and dual registered before the school exit happens– account for a fraction of all unexplained pupil exits: an estimated 12.8 per cent of all exits in the 2017 cohort and 7.6 per cent of all exits in the 2014 cohort.

Unexplained exits – breakdowns by school group: local authorities and MATs are only considered if they contain at least three schools in the two cohorts examined in this study (2014 and 2017). Tables showing the full set of results by school group can be found in the full report.

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