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Exploring senior leaders’ experiences of off-rolling in mainstream secondary schools in England

Helen Knowler Elizabeth J. Done

Ofsted defines off-rolling as


‘the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 50).

The paucity of published research around this practice has prompted media reliance on anecdotal evidence contained in commissioned reports (such as DfES, 2006; Gill, 2017) or the annual reports of bodies such as Ofsted.

Statistical modelling has enabled Ofsted to identify exceptional movements by school and pupil category, and it has found that pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are disproportionally removed from school rolls (Bradbury, 2018); disadvantaged pupils are similarly over-represented (Ofsted, 2019, p.50). Local authority evidence to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA, 2018, p. 35) notes increases in ‘elective’ home education of up to 70 per cent between 2016 and 2017 and, anecdotally, many cases are deemed ‘inappropriate’ responses to school pressure. Ofsted reports that 5,800 pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) left school between years 10 and 11, and a significant proportion of them ‘may have been off-rolled’ (2019, p. 53). Of the 19,000 pupils (4 per cent of all year 10 pupils) leaving school during this period, 9,700 remain unaccounted for (2019, p. 50).

The concentration of such pupils leaving school at this point has prompted suggestions of ‘gaming’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 50). While in early years settings, the ‘gold plating of regulations’ relating to health and safety may account for off-rolling (Ofsted 2019, p. 27), and formal exclusion or off-rolling of pupils with SEND may be attributed to schools’ failure to manage disruptive behaviour (Ofsted, 2019, p. 50), the OSA (2018, p. 36) notes that possible ‘coerced’ home education during ‘key stage 4 years’ (which incorporates GCSEs). The ‘pressures of performance tables’ and Ofsted inspections are identified as key factors in off-rolling by secondary schools (Ofsted, 2019, p. 27).

Ofsted, nevertheless, emphasises the fact that moving its focus ‘away from performance measures in isolation’ will reduce the incentive for schools to off-roll (Ofsted, 2019, 27). This expectation is questionable given the persistence of performance monitoring practices both nationally and internationally. Research around off-rolling in England is highly sensitive. Ofsted is confined to statistical analysis, since its remit would prompt denials that the practice occurs (authors’ personal communication with Ofsted, 13 February 2019), and to recommending that its inspectors ask pertinent questions during school inspections (2019, p. 51). Hence our research on senior leaders’ perspectives on off-rolling and, specifically, on the pressures that encourage the practice despite schools’ alleged ‘empowerment’ through Ofsted’s latest advice to ‘put the child first’ (2019: 27).

Staff at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth are researching the experiences and perspectives of senior leaders in secondary schools in England relating to off-rolling. An expanded ethical process affords potential participants an opportunity to anonymously discuss how findings will be reported, and also varied methods of data collection. It is envisaged that the findings will be of interest to those working in the areas of policy, senior leaders’ professional identities, leadership, inclusion and social justice.

‘A deeper understanding of the tensions and pressures that lead to incidents of “off-rolling” is crucial in order to properly consider means by which the practice can avoided.’

While off-rolling may be a reality in educational practice, and a potentially undesirable outcome for parents and pupils, opportunities for senior leaders to discuss the practice and its effect on them as professionals have been limited. A deeper understanding of the tensions and pressures that lead to incidents of ‘off-rolling’ is crucial in order to properly consider means by which the practice can avoided. Beyond issues of legality, it is possible that shame at having to work in this way is inhibiting professional dialogue. Our research is timely and highly topical, but also takes full account of the sensitive nature of the topic.

To find out more about this project contact Helen Knowler at


Bradbury, J. (2018, June 26). Off-rolling: Using data to see a fuller picture [blog]. Retrieved from

Department for Education and Skills [DfES] (2006). Working to prevent the social exclusion of children and young people: Final lessons from the National Evaluation of the Children’s Fund. Nottingham.

Gill, K., with Quilter-Pinner, H. & Swift, D. (2017). Making the difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. London: Institute for Public Policy Research. Retrieved from

Office of the Schools Adjudicator [OSA] (2017). Office of the Schools Adjudicator annual report: September 2016 to August 2017. London. Retrieved from–3

Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted] (2019). The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2017/18. Retrieved from