As the school year in England begins once again against an evolving Covid-19 backdrop, we ask what this latest set of circumstances means for issues of inclusion, including which students will continue to be at greater risk of being sidelined, ‘off-rolled’ or marginalised (Wenham, 2021). Off-rolling or ‘grey exclusions’ refers to the removal of a student from the school roll when they are not subject to formal procedures such as permanent exclusion. Instead, parents are encouraged to deregister their child.
The subgroups of students overrepresented among those subject to off-rolling, echo those most likely to fall foul of other behaviour management policies: they are disproportionately from lower socioeconomic-status or BAME households, or students designated as SEND (special educational needs and disability) (Done & Knowler, 2020; 2021). There is evidence that some parents whose children are classed as both SEND and clinically extremely vulnerable (CeV) have already been put under pressure to deregister specifically as a consequence of Covid-19. These families resisted a previous reopening of schools, refusing to comply with the return to face-to-face teaching and instead keeping their children at home, which had a detrimental impact on school attendance figures (Wenham et al.,2021). Will there now be a further wave of Covid-related off-rolling?
A leading medical journal highlights the fact that, in comparison to many others, the Westminster government is taking an unusual stance towards maintaining Covid-19 safety measures in schools by removing last year’s safety precautions (Pagel, 2021). The enforced wearing of masks in schools, whether in classrooms or in corridors, has gone; the use of bubbles is similarly no longer obligatory; testing and isolation regimes are diminishing and, as yet, no ventilation measures are mandatory.
‘Lack of ventilation measures in mainstream schools means that families with clinically extremely vulnerable and SEND children may wish to keep their children at home. Yet a renewed government emphasis on attendance compliance means such families will come under pressure from schools to either succumb or deregister.’
Following pressure, particularly from teaching unions, the government is now belatedly considering issues of ventilation and proposing the installation of CO2 monitors in all schools. The sourcing, allocation and timing of this has yet to be clarified, however, and any such measure will certainly come too late for an autumn rollout. It is encouraging that special schools and alternative provision are purportedly being prioritised to receive monitors once they are available (Booth, 2021), as this implies recognition that vulnerable students may need additional Covid-19 safety measures. However, it would also appear to ignore any similarly vulnerable students within mainstream schools, therefore raising issues around inclusion. A CeV student with SEND in a special school or alternative provision will be prioritised for air quality monitoring and thus, presumably, for consequent improved ventilation, leading to a lower Covid risk in their schooling environment than for a similar child in a mainstream school. Moreover, the government appears to be instigating a new crackdown on absence, with the appointment of attendance advisers (Lough, 2021).
Taken together, these developments do not bode well for parents with family-members at heightened risk from Covid, who remain understandably more cautious about the return to school (Carr, 2021). Specifically, as families with SEND and CeV children in mainstream school are unlikely to see ventilation measures swiftly implemented in these settings, they may wish to keep their children at home. However, with a renewed government emphasis on attendance compliance, we can expect such families to come under pressure from schools to either succumb or deregister. In this way, the likelihood of further Covid-related off-rolling is compounded, unless schools can find a way to effectively resolve these tensions.
It is reassuring and a source of optimism that various schools report that they will continue with many of their previous Covid-19 precautions such as testing regimes, bubbles and masks, despite being under no obligation to do so. Teachers understand what is best for their students and will act to support and protect them despite policy advice rather than because of it. Hopefully schools will act similarly by finding means to navigate the tensions implicit in improving attendance metrics while simultaneously supporting vulnerable families in choosing what is best for their children.
Booth, S. (2021, August 21) All state schools to receive carbon dioxide monitors to help ventilation. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/all-state-schools-to-receive-carbon-dioxide-monitors-to-help-ventilation/
Carr, J. (2021, September 6) ‘DfE threatened with legal action over ‘unlawful’ Covid attendance rules’, Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-threatened-with-legal-action-over-unlawful-covid-attendance-rules/
Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2020). A tension between rationalities: “Off-rolling” as gaming and the implications for head teachers and the inclusion agenda. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2020.1806785
Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2021, August 2). SENCOs, crisis planning in schools and the international problem of ‘off rolling’ or ‘grey exclusions’. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/sencos-crisis-planning-in-schools-and-the-international-problem-of-off-rolling-or-grey-exclusions
Lough, C. (2021, August 25). DfE hires attendance advisers to cut school absence. Times Educational Supplement. https://www.tes.com/news/dfe-hires-attendance-advisers-cut-school-absence-covid/
Pagel, C. (2021, August 20). Schools—a gaping hole in the English covid strategy’. The BMJ Opinion. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/08/20/christina-pagel-schools-a-gaping-hole-in-the-english-covid-strategy/
Wenham, L. (2021). Misunderstood, misinterpreted and mismanaged: Voices of students marginalised in a secondary school. Peter Lang.
Wenham, L., Din, I., & Eaves, L. (2021). ‘I no longer trust our son’s school’: Parents resisting the return to face-to-face teaching. FORUM for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education, 63(2), 74–88.