Some of England’s most influential academy chains are facing fresh questions over the number of children disappearing from their classrooms in the run-up to GCSEs, following a new statistical analysis of official figures.
The same four academy chains have the highest numbers of 15- 16-year-olds leaving their schools in both of the last two academic years. In some cases, two pupils are disappearing from the rolls for every class of 30. Some local authorities are also approaching these figures for dropouts.
Fears have been increasing that some schools are “offrolling” – getting rid of students who could do badly in their exams – in an effort to boost their league table position.
The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, is among those voicing concern. The inspectorate has yet to find a way to differentiate offrolling from cases where schools have acted in the best interests of children, but it has started to gather its own data.
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 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.
Nationally, there has been a huge rise in recent years in the number of young people leaving their school in the run-up to GCSEs. The average year 10/11 shrinkage rate in England was 2% in 2018. Seven years ago the rate was less than 0.1%.
Many of these teenagers will go to pupil referral units, or will be educated at home. This means their grades will not be counted in their school’s exam results.
The trusts we spoke to say they are acting in the young people’s best interests. Some of the trusts point to a high level of disadvantage among their pupil intake.