Off-Rolling: What is it, and why does DfE guidance continue to not address it?

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By Megan Whitehouse, School of Education

Off-rolling describes the process whereby a pupil is illegally excluded from their school. This process can take many forms, however the most commonly reported examples involve a child being sent home to ‘cool off’, or a parent being coerced into educating their child at home in an attempt to avoid an official exclusion being on their child’s record. Accurate statistics regarding the scale of off-rolling are difficult to find. Nevertheless, estimates show that thousands of children may be subject to this practice each year – with children from Black ethnic backgrounds, those eligible for free school meals, children with special educational needs and children most commonly affected. This blog post will focus on the DfE’s new suspension and exclusions guidance that has recently been out for consultation, briefly discussing the obfuscation of policy surrounding this practice before concluding with recommendations for future guidance.

Prior to the publication of this most recent policy, the practice of off-rolling has been notably missing from DfE suspension and exclusion guidance. As such, it is a welcome change to see the DfE now engaging in this conversation. However, the guidance neglects to provide a clear and specific definition of what off-rolling actually is, thus leaving the potential for misunderstanding or perhaps, even, wilful ignorance.

Despite this, the guidance does make clear that suspension and exclusion can only be used for disciplinary purposes and goes on to state that it is, “unlawful to exclude a pupil simply because they have additional needs or a disability that the school feels it is unable to meet”. Therefore, it is rather confusing to see that the same document also claims that schools should avoid adopting a ‘no exclusions’ policy as exclusion “is the only real way to make sure an excluded pupil can get the support they need” . The guidance further suggests that the law may be changed in order to allow ‘safeguarding’ to be used as a justification for suspension and/or exclusion . Such contradictory statements within the same guidance document serve to obscure the practice of off-rolling, further blurring the boundaries between the legal and illegal use of school exclusion.

Additional concerns are raised by the fact that this guidance claims Ofsted will “judge a school as inadequate if there is evidence that pupils have been removed from the school roll without a formal permanent exclusion” .However, Ofsted’s definition of off-rolling differs from the description of practice provided by the DfE’s guidance document in that it specifically refers to ‘gaming’, the “manipulation of academic performance data”, as a motivation for illegally removing a child from school. As such, I am inclined to question Ofsted’s competency for investigating off-rolling – and these concerns do not appear to be unfounded. In 2021, the Times Educational Supplement reported that Ofsted were failing to ‘flag up’ instances of off-rolling that did not meet their very specific definition. Furthermore, there were occasions where schools found to be off-rolling pupils were only downgraded to ‘Requires Improvement’ rather than ‘Inadequate’ – further demonstrating Ofsted’s lack of consistency in reporting and challenging off-rolling.

This brief exploration of the new suspension and exclusion guidance makes clear that the obfuscation of policy regarding off-rolling is here to stay, with no real plan in place for addressing which schools are engaging in off-rolling and the reasons behind why they may choose to illegally exclude a child in the first place. As such, it is recommended that the DfE reconsider this guidance and seek to develop and agreed and consistent definition of off-rolling that is shared with all stakeholders.

However, this issue goes beyond simply defining what types of exclusion are considered to be ‘illegal’. What is really needed is a reconsideration of a disciplinary practice that allows children and young people from vulnerable groups to be disproportionately excluded from education – whether that be by ‘legal’ or illegal means.

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