I understand off-rolling, but that doesn’t make it right.


Off rolling is a pernicious activity but I would hasten to suggest that it is not a strategy that any school would voluntarily employ. I would suggest that it happens because of external market pressure, and that despite proposed increased punitive sanctions by regulatory bodies, unless we resolve the market influence, schools will continue to engage in it, albeit more surreptitiously.

What is off-rolling, and what causes it?Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 7.17.53 pm

Results, results, results! Whether we like it or not, this is a very strong driver of school policy. Whether we like it or not, and certainly regardless of how vociferously it is denied by OFSTED, results are a major determinant of school ratings, which in turn becomes a determinant of school admissions, which in turn becomes a determinant of school viability. I’m not a journalist, but having read these articles (here ,here, here, and here), it appears that off-rolling, a strategy that removes students from a school’s roll in order that they don’t affect the performance data of the school, is on the rise. It seems like something from some dystopian world, and difficult to imagine, given that all involved in education would surely have students’ best interests at heart. But explaining it is important in the sphere of educational debate, as the futures of many students may be adversely affected if the issue persists.

Market rules 

Is it all a ramification of the increasing imperative of the survival of the fittest? Is it because sometimes, when jobs are on the line, schools will do all sorts of things to achieve the necessary results? Is it because, under such pressures, sometimes, leaders of schools will forego their natural inclinations to support all students in their care, and remove some students who potentially jeopardise the performance data? It appears so.

Sometimes, such decisions are actually out of the hands of school leaders, leaders who are shackled to Academy Trusts, and thus business executives. These leaders have little choice but to demonstrate efficiency in achieving results: the alternative is the chopping block. Lamentably, once the running of a school becomes more about business than cultural capital, the rules and intrinsic essence of business supersede community values, and school leaders are fettered to the market and its emotionless application of supply and demand. Off-rolling then could be considered the inevitable stratagem of a cold detached paradigm. Its goal of improved performance data in order to improve the perception of the quality of the school’s running is undertaken to ultimately guarantee a school’s survival. It doesn’t care about how it gets to this point; it doesn’t care what happens to those off-rolled. It simply passes them along. It becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind.

Societal outcasts?

But what happens to those off-rolled is important. It raises multiple issues around ethics, and what community education actually is. Long gone are the days when students would be potentially better served with a more specific interventionist facility, as these places are either woefully underfunded and understaffed, or have indeed closed, thanks to government austerity measures. It is apt, considering the season, to compare the situation with Scrooge being content to ‘decrease the surplus population’ if the poor would rather die than go to the workhouses. Scrooge’s ignorance in passing the buck may well be more common in the educational world than we would hope. Are we to accept that some of those who are off-rolled potentially become the new underclass? The only chance of redemption is to address the market forces that drive off-rolling.

Make it not worth doing

The sudden increase in numbers of students reported to have disappeared off school rolls as GCSE examinations could simply be coincidence, but it is likely that it is not, and more due to the increasing realisation of MAT’s and state-run schools that it CAN be done; that it is a viable avenue to pursue when market forces dictate terms and truly flex their muscles. Yes, the law states that it is an illegal process, but the cynic in me suggests that schools can circumnavigate the rules to make it happen. Is it the case for those cited in the articles above of ‘do now, ask for forgiveness later’ – another business axiom? It doesn’t seem like anything has actually resulted from the ‘investigations’. So is the solution more punitive measures for those caught? Or would it be to reduce the link between school results and OFSTED ratings, thereby rendering the market effect mute?

Behaviour and off-rolling

Some suggest that there exists another type of off-rolling: permanent exclusions.

Some say that a sudden increase in the number of permanent exclusions in some schools is a fashionable method to improve performance data, but this may not be a fair conclusion. Exclusions are likely to be the result of the consistent enforcement of behaviour policies, or indeed, the strengthening of existing ineffective policies. The desire to mitigate lost learning time effected by poor behaviour is a reasonable ambition in any school, and surely drives all behaviour policies. The natural side effect of increased exclusions of those who fail to conform to a school’s expectations is likely to be that results will improve, as more learning is done in the absence of any disruptors. The rise in permanent exclusions resulting from the application of behaviour policies could only begin to fall into the off-rolling category if the school did little to provide sufficient support when a student consistently breaks the rules. But even then, things fall into murky waters as, shown above, schools face reduced capacity to offer interventions to struggling or recalcitrant students. Schools may be well aware that once passed on, the student has few options, but again, the market rules force a utilitarian approach. What the future holds for those who are excluded in a society that has no infrastructure to support them is perhaps the essence of another post.

In another guise

Off-rolling is hardly a new strategy in education, with selective and grammar schools essentially off-rolling before students even enter their walls. But now it seems that general schools are catching up. Unless we consider ways to reduce the market influence on such schools, off-rolling will take on new guises, and the educational landscape, and thus our future world, will truly begin to take on a nebulous and uncomfortable shape.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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