The research found that 22,000 pupils who would have been in the sixth form this year left mainstream schooling before finishing year 11. Thousands of these had either moved away from England, joined private schools or were being home-schooled, but the location of up to 7,700 children could not be identified, FFT Education Datalab said.
Philip Nye, one of the authors of the study, said it was a matter of “great concern” that several thousand pupils could disappear from school rolls each year, with no obvious means of ongoing formal education and almost certainly without gaining any qualifications.
“We would question whether the Department for Education can be satisfied that all of these pupils are receiving a suitable education. Despite building a detailed picture of movements on and off school rolls, there are a number of things we are still unable to say about this group,” he said.
Since 2015, children and young adults in England have been required by law to stay in full-time education or training until the age of 18. If the FFT data is accurate, the law may be being flouted by thousands of families.
The researchers said informal exclusions or off-rolling – schools convincing parents to withdraw their children without making a formal exclusion order – could be contributing to the rising number of missing pupils.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said: “Exclusions guidance specifically states that informal or unofficial exclusions are unlawful under all circumstances. Any decision to exclude a pupil should be lawful, reasonable and fair and must be formally recorded by the school. Our guidance outlines how exclusions should be used, and includes summaries for schools and parents on the rules of exclusions.”
The FFT research – the most detailed study of pupil movement – followed an entire cohort of 550,000 children enrolled at mainstream state schools in England, based on figures from the annual school census and the DfE’s national pupil database. The cohort’s numbers were traced from year seven, the first year of secondary school, up until taking their GCSEs in 2017.
The figures show that by the time of sitting GCSEs, 8,700 pupils were in alternative provision or pupil referral units, nearly 2,500 had moved to special schools and 22,000 had left the state sector – an increase from 20,000 in 2014.
Of the 22,000, 3,000 had moved to mainstream private schools and fewer than 4,000 were enrolled or sat their GCSEs at a variety of other education institutions.
Nye said the study used emigration data by age and internal migration data to estimate that around 60% of the remaining 15,000 children were likely to have moved away from England, in some case to other parts of the UK such as Wales.
That left between 6,000 to 7,700 former pupils unaccounted for, who appear not to have sat any GCSE or equivalent qualifications or been counted in school data.
Meanwhile, the chief inspector of schools in England, Amanda Spielman, has said Ofsted will closely look for instances of pupils being “hidden” in order to improve a school’s inspection reports.