I am sure I am not alone in grimacing when I click on any news link referring to a young death in London and hoping I do not recognise any names. The same applies to any court proceedings for something that could have, but did not, result in tragedy or a long prison sentence. Admittedly, it is a selfish reaction.
This is the twentieth year I have worked in London, covering four main schools and now working with various others. Too often in that time I have seen a name in the press I am familiar with from a child I used to know for the wrong reasons. Recently there have been two cases, involving four young people from two of those schools. I am not going to reference the young people or the schools here.
This week saw the hundredth killing in London in 2019, and the twentieth teenager. In 2018 the equivalent figures were 135 and 23. Unfortunately at the present rate both of these figures will be exceeded this year. Of those who died who were not teenagers, but in their twenties and thirties, I guarantee there were still teachers who were very upset by the news even if it was twenty years or more since they taught them. Maybe they had a pastoral relationship as a form tutor or a head of year, a subject teacher with whom they had a special relationship or possibly none of those things, just someone who took the time to look out for everyone and get to know them along the way. There are loads of those people in schools, who pick up the vibe in every corridor and see what is going on with the hundreds they never teach.
For me, there is an extra edge to any of these news stories when you had reason to believe that they would come through or should no longer be at risk. Or you celebrate them getting to their GCSEs and think if they have got that far, and beyond all that could go wrong in adolescence, surely they must now go on to a good life. I remember those academic years when it got to mid-July and you realised that you were not going to have do a permanent exclusion hearing during that year. It was a quiet moment of celebration because you thought the worst had passed for your most intensive cases. For that year at least.
My view is all you can ever do is lower the percentages. Despite your actions, and the resources you might throw at them from every angle, you can never completely cut out the possibility of a short life. I have known young people where every factor pointed to a potential tragedy, yet somehow they came through and have gone on to live an apparently much more prosperous adult life than the activities of their youth indicated. They were the kids you looked at as they left school for the final time in July and hoped they came back in September, the first ones you want to see arrive back at the start of term. There are also those cases where you did not think they were at risk but events show otherwise.
Banging the same drum as previous blogs I know but this is one of many reasons why off-rolling grates so much. How can you manage the percentages if you no longer see the kids and cannot determine the next intervention? The Guardian reported this week that ‘10,000 pupils disappear from English schools at critical stage’. This is up on last year. It seems remarkable that just as Ofsted have stated they are going to look at this with a greater level of scrutiny the numbers go up not down. Maybe for some schools it has become ingrained for so long they cannot go back now, or admit what they were really doing. Maybe if they have an inspection on the horizon they are hoping that the year 11 of 2019 will be old news as it is only the current roll that anyone will look at. Or perhaps they could not face the significant impact on their results this would have, and this would raise all kinds of questions about what went on before not least with their governors. Potentially their staff have got so used to kids disappearing that it would be a big adjustment to cope with a return to a fully comprehensive intake. (“We’re not used to teaching kids like this in year 11, they’ve normally gone by then.”) The evidence points to staff on the ground knowing what is going on, it would be interesting to see what would happen if inspectors started to talk to them about this. Intent, implementation and impact applies to inclusion too, not just the curriculum.
What impact does off-rolling have on these kids’ life chances? For the recent examples I mentioned at the beginning, they were all kids who had a lot of attention and intervention to keep them both in education and safe. I can picture my former colleagues and their reaction when they see the news, not least because of all they invested in them personally and how well they knew their parents. I am old enough now to have former students in their twenties and thirties, forties even if I go back to my time before London. Those opportunities in school, those members of staff who always took the time, those long discussions after school when you balance the needs of the school and the individual and sleep on it time and again – they really matter and can carry an impact for many years after a student has left school. The experience they had on a particular day in year 10 can kick back in as a helpful reference point when they are at least twice that age, but not if they were removed from the school roll.
My concern is how many more cases will come through in the future. If off-rolling stopped now there are still thousands and thousands of young people whose time in mainstream schools was cut short in an unseemly manner. Their life chances are lower on average, for many considerably so in my view. For some of them it may be five, ten, fifteen years’ time before the full impact of that comes through. It is not just schools that need the investment, it is colleges too. All those for whom their school did not do the right thing by them need options in front of them that restore the balance. Otherwise I am afraid the tragedies will continue.