Huge rise in home education sparks ‘off-rolling’ accusations

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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A children's commissioner report sets out strong evidence of off-rolling practices, with stories of schools putting pressure on ‘harassed parents’ to home-educate challenging students or those with SEN. Pete Henshaw takes a look

A huge increase in the number of children “disappearing from schools” to be educated at home is likely to be the result of “off-rolling”.

A report from the Children’s Commissioner for England reveals stories of schools that have pro forma letters declaring a decision to home-educate and parents who have signed up to home education without realising it.

The report shows that the number of children registered as home-educated has risen by at least 20 per cent in each of the past five years – and has doubled since 2013/14.

In 2018, it is estimated that almost 60,000 children in England were being home-schooled at any one time – a 27 per cent rise on 2017. For 2018, the total figure of home-educated children could be as high as 80,000, the report suggests.

The report – entitled Skipping school: Invisible children – also reveals that secondary school students are much more likely to be withdrawn from school. From 2015/16 to 2017/18 there was a 32 per cent increase in the number of primary children moving to home education, compared to a 71 per cent increase in secondary schools.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, suspects that many of the children being moved to home education are being off-rolled by schools.

Ofsted defines off-rolling as: “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.”

The data in the report suggests that a small number of schools are off-rolling the majority of students, with one in 10 accounting for half of the pupil movement: “The data shows that very few schools are responsible for the majority of moves into home education. Roughly nine out of 10 schools only saw zero to two referrals into home education a year, but for a tiny minority of schools it can be more than 15 a year.”

An analysis using data from 11 local authority areas, also published in the report, reveals a 48 per cent rise in the number of children withdrawn from schools into home education between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

In one example, the report quotes data from Hackney and Newham in east London. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, the number of children moving to home education increased by 94 per cent in Hackney and 176 per cent in Newham.

The report adds: “Hackney academies saw an increase in children moving into home education of 238 per cent between 2016/17 and 2017/18; Newham academies saw a 112 per cent increase. Among local authority-run schools in the two boroughs, the increases over the same period were 21 per cent (Hackney) and 66 per cent (Newham).”

In her foreword to the report, Ms Longfield says that while some parents take the philosophical choice to educate their children at home or feel they have no choice because of issues such as bullying, many “home-educated” students have been off-rolled, with, in some instances, “harassed parents” signing up to this without understanding the implications.

She writes: “It is sometimes schools themselves that put pressure on parents to remove children who don’t ‘fit in’. This practice, known as off-rolling, can amount to informal, illegal exclusion. This is becoming more common, even in some local authority-managed schools. It is unacceptable that some schools are washing their hands of children – particularly the most vulnerable.”

Schools can only exclude children on discipline grounds, not for other reasons such as low attainment or SEN. The report raises concerns that many parents feel obliged to accept home education to avoid threats of formal exclusion, not realising that they are giving up important safeguards by doing so.

The report adds: “The children’s commissioner has heard of schools, anecdotally, where pro forma letters declaring a decision to home-educate are kept at reception, ready for parents to sign when things at school get tough. She has met distraught parents who have signed up to home-educating their child without even realising that was what they were doing.”

The report warns that many home-educated children are “invisible to local authorities” and not receiving any kind of education. One in five children withdrawn from school have SEN. There is no record of these children kept in schools and parents do not have to register home-educated children.

Ms Longfield has pledged to publish a second report later this year “identifying which schools have high numbers of children being withdrawn into home education which may suggest practices of off-rolling”.

Ms Longfield, who tackled this issue in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Monday evening (February 4), wants the government to create a compulsory register of “off the grid” children in order to get a better handle on the issue. She is also calling for stronger measures to tackle off-rolling and a greater oversight of home education.

Research conducted by Dispatches and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services found that 93 per cent of councils admit that they are not aware of all the children in their area who are home-educated. Furthermore, 28 per cent of families refuse permission for local authorities to conduct home visits.

Ms Longfield said: “Our investigations have revealed thousands of children are off the grid because they are being home-schooled. The numbers are rocketing and no-one knows how they are doing academically or even if they’re safe.

Many are being off-rolled. It also seems that a relatively small number of schools may be responsible for this sharp rise in children leaving school for ‘home education’ in this way.

“Many of these children are very vulnerable, have SEN, or are unable to cope with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system. Schools should be for all children, including those with complex needs and those who struggle academically.

“We need to know who these children are, where they are, whether they are safe and if they are getting the education they need to succeed in life. There is a clear case for the government to introduce a compulsory register.”


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