England’s invisible kids: government condoned negligence?

This was the subject of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme broadcast on 4 February 2019.

As the number of children leaving school in favour of home education doubles, Dispatches asks why, and if parents’ rights to remove a child are coming before the education, or safety, of children.

But the concern should not stop here. The programme also addressed the issue of unregulated schools that masquerade as ‘home education support centres’. These are mainly operated by religious organisations that the DfE seems reluctant to challenge.

And there is more, not mentioned on the programme. What about the quality and reliability of DfE claims for the success of its marketised education policies? For example, the claim that, ‘A record number of pupils are now taught in good or outstanding schools‘, is regularly parroted. But what if that OfSTED success is achieved by ‘off rolling’? See this New Statesman article of 20 September 2018 and Guardian articles of 26 June and 6 November 2018

Here are some quotes from these articles.

The schools regulator OfSTED has identified 300 schools with high levels of so-called off-rolling, where pupils disappear from the school register just before GCSEs. It has found that more than 19,000 pupils who were in year 10 in 2016 vanished from the school roll by the start of year 11, the year when pupils sit their GCSEs. While many of those pupils moved to new schools and reappeared on roll elsewhere, around half disappeared without trace, raising concerns that a number will have dropped out of education altogether. (Guardian 26 Jun)

The practice of off-rolling has come to prominence over the last couple of years. Education Data Lab, an influential research group, first flagged up the problem as early as 2015, pointing out how schools were ”losing” large numbers of vulnerable and low attaining children, with up to 20,000 children missing from mainstream education by GCSE time. To make matters worse, these pupils are largely disadvantaged, with those eligible for free school meals and looked-after children most likely to be affected. The problem is particularly severe in parts of inner London. (New Statesman 20 Sep 18)

Education Guardian looked at England’s 50 largest academy trusts and 50 largest local education authorities, and compared the number of pupils in year 11 in 2017-18 – the students counted when GCSE results are published – to the number in year 10, a year earlier. The findings reveal a consistent pattern in some chains of year groups shrinking substantially. The same four trusts fill the top four places in our table on 2017-18 data and on data for 2016-17. The trend of disappearing pupils appears to be happening at a higher rate in the academies sector. (6 Nov 18)

It is not as if this issue is new.

On 16 January 2011, BBC Newsnight featured unofficial exclusions from Academies and the effect this was having on the proportions of pupils not entered for GCSE English and maths. The BBC had researched the following data based on the 2010 GCSE results.

In Academies 3.5 percent of pupils were not entered for English and maths GCSEs compared to 2.0 percent in Local Authority Community Schools. 21 percent of Academies had fewer than 95 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than double the proportion of any other school type). 9 percent of academies had fewer than 90 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than triple the proportion of any other school type). 2 percent of academies had fewer than 80 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE whereas all other school types had zero percent of schools which fall within this bracket.

However, to be ‘off-rolled’ you have to get into the school in the first place.

Janet Downs wrote about this in April 2014.

This is an extract from her Local Schools Network article.

“It might be best if you looked elsewhere”. That’s what one school told a parent of a child with special needs (SEN), said the Children’s Commissioner. The Children’s Commissioner heard evidence of how schools deter SEN children and said parents of SEN pupils had been put off from applying for a school place because of “negative messages”. It wasn’t just parents of SEN children who could be discouraged, but less affluent parents too, the Children’s Commissioner found. Many schools required expensive uniform from an exclusive source despite clear guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) to keep uniform costs to a minimum. The Commissioner discovered schools serving the same neighbourhood could nevertheless have very different intakes. This raised the question whether the admission system was contributing to inequality whereby one school had a disproportionate number of previously high-attaining pupils while another had an intake skewed to the bottom of the ability range.

The DfE and OfSTED must have been well aware of these issues for the best part of a decade. What have they done about it? We are now into 2019 and the Dispatches programme suggests that, if anything, ‘missing kids’ is a growing problem. So why has there been such a lack of action? Here are some suggested answers to this question.

  1. Academies appear to be offending far more than LA maintained schools, but are their misdeeds being overlooked by the government?

It is as if the ‘missing kids’ issue, along with the growing use of abusive discipline in Academies is seen by the government as regrettable, but unavoidable collateral damage in its policy of educational regime change in which knowledge-based school curriculum is intended to replace the dangerously lefty formerly mainstream developmental models of Piaget, Vygotsky (and Bruner in the US), by the long academically discredited behaviourism of B F Skinner.

This desired regime change requires the replacement of the state school system brought about by the 1945 Education Act, by the state funded, but privatised Academies introduced by New Labour to implement the 1988 Education Reform Act, which imposed customer choice and competition onto all schools where previously the predominant culture was one of co-operation and collaboration.

The DfE, with the collusion of OfSTED, has promoted these Academy schools and disparaged LA schools ever since the first Academies opened. The shock troops of regime change were to be provided by OfSTED, which replaced and absorbed the formerly politically neutral Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (HMI).

A small special team of HMIs was created that was uniquely allowed to lead OfSTED inspections of Academies. A Protocol agreed between the now renamed Department for Children, Families and Schools (DCFS) Academies Division and OfSTED (revised November 2004) states that this select team was necessary, “to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted”. Two HMI members of this Academies inspection team represented OfSTED in regular meetings with the Academies Group at DCSF to monitor the progress of Academies and also to plan inspections and brief inspectors of possible predecessor schools in areas where feasibility studies for the introduction of Academies had taken place.

All this was carried out by the same Labour government that had shortly before supported and assisted the US in its violent policy of political regime change in Iraq.

Government promotion of Academies and the disparaging of Local Authority (LA) schools is continuing as Janet Downs notes here.

Section 3.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘, contains many examples from OfSTED inspections of the early Academies. This is one example.

In [another] academy just 9% of pupils gained an A*-C in double award science, 5% in history, 2% in geography, 1% in French and 3% in German, yet 48% gained 5+A*-Cs. The only comment in the 2006 OfSTED inspection report related to these results is, “The secondary phase curriculum is satisfactory”. The judgements on the sixth form were however damning. The curriculum provision was graded as “inadequate, lacking breadth and balance, and offering only a limited range of courses”. The Lead Inspector did not make the obvious link between the poverty of provision for mainstream academic subjects at KS4 and the ability of the school to provide a full range of opportunities in the sixth form. The report said nothing about the expertise and qualifications of the teaching staff and their consequent ability to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils. It was not just the curriculum in the sixth form that was judged inadequate, but also the general provision of education and services for meeting the needs of these learners. This would seem to have been a clear judgement of inadequacy of the sixth form as a whole, inviting the conclusion that the school was failing to give its sixth form students an acceptable standard of education; normally a signal for the imposition of Special Measures or at least a Notice to Improve. However, this is what the Lead HMI Inspector wrote in her post-inspection letter to pupils:

We were thrilled to see the huge improvements since our first HMI visit over a year ago. Your GCSE results were really good. The principal, the headteacher and the academy leadership team have worked really hard and it’s paying off. Your academy is remarkable. We hope that your academy, with your help, just keeps getting better and better. [My bold]

I leave it to the reader to judge the objectivity of such comments.

  1. If the attainment data of the many thousands of missing pupils were included, a much poorer picture of national educational attainment would result.

Could this be why the government has done nothing to ensure that ‘home education’ is properly regulated? The Dispatches programme provides graphic evidence of the inability of LA Children’s Services departments to secure even the welfare of home educated children, let alone an acceptable standard of education. LA officers have no right of entry into the homes of home educated children, let alone to inspect how they are being educated. The Dispatches programme featured the death through neglect of one such ‘missing’ child. Unlike the cases of the deaths of babies and pre-school children, which brought about government inspections of Social Services departments resulting in major improvement plans, no government promoted interventions on a similar scale have taken place in relation to ‘missing children’. Before OfSTED became involved in the inspection and regulation of childminders, LAs had responsibilities and powers of inspection, which have always been far more extensive than for school age children educated at home.  LAs lack the powers to check that such children are alive and healthy, or even still in the country, let alone the standard of education they are receiving. Many LAs report that they are now so starved of funds they would not in practice be able to safeguard such children even if they had the necessary powers.

  1. The government is in favour of religious schools as a matter of principle

Even though OfSTED acknowledges that there are many hundreds of illegal unregistered religious schools it appears to have no powers of entry, let alone inspection. I find this incomprehensible given the constant trickle of very concerning evidence about a range of unacceptable practices in these unregulated organisations that often pass themselves off as ‘home education support centres’.

  1. Impact on PISA judgements

The government continues to worry about the outcomes of these international tests as revealed here. See also my comments on this important article.

How much worse would the English PISA judgements be if the many thousands of ‘missing’ pupils were included in the PISA pupil samples selected to take the international tests? There are many reasons why the PISA results are suspect, but the effect of these missing children must be highly significant and is never mentioned.

It was not always like this

I was a secondary head in Barrow-in-Furness from 1989 until 2003. Throughout this period, before the disastrous local Academisation programme was implemented in 2009, Cumbria County Council had a large, well staffed Education Welfare Service. In Barrow the Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) worked from the impressive local education offices in the town centre. They were aware of every child in the town aged from 4 – 18. They achieved this through their powers to enter schools and inspect registers. A major responsibility was to monitor child welfare and encourage attendance through home visits in support of the schools. They also advised and supported parents whose children may have come into conflict with the school. EWOs frequently attended meetings between parents and school staff and were skilled at helping resolve conflicts. Parents with such issues could see their local EWO by visiting the local Education Office. Our school EWO team was excellent. They supported and had confidence in our school. Our school’s lead EWO enrolled her own children in our school. I had a good relationship with the school’s EWO team as did the pastoral team of the school.  The ‘dark arts’ of off-rolling could not have gone unnoticed in Barrow.  The EWOs would have passed on any concerns and the LEA would have taken action.

Everything changed with Academisation. The LA EWO service has no right to inspect the registers of Academies, let alone support parents in disputes with the school. The EWO service had to ‘sell’ its support services to the new Academy schools. Unsurprisingly there were few takers from these increasingly autocratic institutions. About eight years ago the LA also abandoned its regulatory relationship with its own schools, which now have to purchase a primarily ‘attendance chasing’ service from the LA using the delegated budget. Some, but not all, LA schools do this, frequently ‘sharing’ an EWO between two or more schools. Less EWOs are now needed adding to the shrinkage of the service first brought about by Academisation. The prestigious Local Education Office was sold off for retail development and demolished apart from its listed Art Deco facade.

The Cumbria LA still appears to be doing its best. I found this on the website.

Do you know of a child who is not receiving an education? We are concerned about any child living in Cumbria who is missing from education. It may not only be their educational attainment that is at risk, but also their safety and welfare. If you know of a child living in Cumbria who you believe may be missing from education, please use the form below to report your concern. Alternatively call or email the Children Missing from Education team in the appropriate area, please see the details below. You do not have to give your name and all responses are treated confidentially.

This website page is not easy to find. It is better than nothing, but nowhere remotely close to replicating the level of regulation and protection of school age children routinely achieved by the former LEA EWO Service. In making this observation, I am not intending to criticise the Cumbria LA. I am sure they, like other LAs, are trying to do their best.

It is hard not to rage against these changes and the way that the education and welfare of so many thousands of children appear to be being sacrificed on the altar of marketisation and Academisation.

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1 Response to England’s invisible kids: government condoned negligence?

  1. John Mountford says:

    Roger, I sat through the Dispatches programme becoming increasingly agitated by its content. I was impressed by Anne Longfield’s commitment (Children’s Commissioner for England) in bringing this huge topic to the public’s attention in the face of what can only be described as the utter shambles represented by Ofsted’s contribution. If one needed confirmation of just what the blatant marketisation of services for children has done to their welfare and well being, then look no further than this programme!

    I, too recall working with EWOs in my headships. At its best, it was a service that offered support for the most vulnerable families. At its poorest it meant that at least people who cared, had access to data about these vulnerable families. This has been replaced, with catastrophic effect, by ‘for-profit’ organisations in the current increasingly un-regulated environment affecting children’s education and wellbeing. It is a national disgrace. The fact that Ofsted, for all its eagerness and heavy handedness in holding individual schools to account, was clearly exposed as toothless and ineffectual, should lead to immediate and sweeping changes.


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