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Blog post

Understanding girls’ experiences of being at risk of permanent exclusion: How do we get there?

Emma Clarke, Senior Lecturer at University of York

This blog considers some of the issues highlighted by existing research on girls’ exclusion from schooling and the challenges of beginning research in this area. Although boys are three times more likely to be permanently excluded than girls (DfE, 2021), criticisms have been levelled at government policies which consistently emphasise boys’ exclusions, perpetuating misleading narratives that ‘girls are not a problem’ (Osler et al., 2002; Ringrose, 2007). Ostler et al. (2002) warned 20 years ago that girls were ‘an underestimated minority’ and were not a priority in thinking around exclusion, yet comparatively little investigation has been undertaken on their experiences in the intervening years (Russell & Thomson, 2011), despite data from 2014–19 showing that permanent exclusions for girls were increasing more rapidly than for boys (Agenda Alliance, 2021). The aim of my current research is to unpick why and how the issues highlighted two decades ago persist today, and this blog considers some of the issues around reaching and recruiting these ‘silenced’ (Agenda Alliance, 2021) girls as participants.

Permanent exclusions from full-time education in England are a significant and growing issue​ (DfE, 2019). The Timpson review has noted year-on-year increases since 2012/13 (DfE, 2019) rising by 300 per cent in 2017/18, with some secondary schools excluding up to 20 per cent of their pupils (UNISON, 2018). DfE statistics show exclusions fell for 2019/20 – largely attributed to Covid-19 school closures – but for the autumn term of 2019 alone, permanent exclusions increased by 5 per cent compared to the same time the previous year ​(DfE, 2021)​, with girls’ exclusions growing by 7.8 per cent compared to 4.8 per cent for boys (Agenda Alliance, 2021). Girls are also more likely than boys to experience self-exclusion, informal exclusions and ‘off-rolling’, where pupils are removed from the school roll rather than being officially excluded, usually serving ‘the best interests of the school, rather than the pupil’ (Owen, 2019). This means the true number of girls lost from school is hidden by DfE statistics, with girls’ experiences remaining ‘unheard’ due to a lack of visibility (Agenda Alliance, 2021; Clarke et al., 2011), perpetuating implicit views that schools are ‘girl-friendly’, and that girls are less likely to experience behavioural difficulties (Osler et al, 2002). This compounds the complexity of researching in this area, where participants are invisible in data and often disenfranchised in education.

‘The true number of girls lost from school is hidden by DfE statistics, with girls’ experiences remaining “unheard” due to a lack of visibility, perpetuating implicit views that schools are “girl-friendly”, and that girls are less likely to experience behavioural difficulties.’

Clarke et al. (2011, p. 765) argued that girls were systematically ‘silenced, marginalised, and denied the opportunity to express their views’, becoming pejoratively labelled as ‘hard to reach’ and to blame for their challenges (Agenda Alliance, 2021). These arguments highlight the importance of examining girls’ experiences of education – however, suggestions that girls are ‘invisible’ and ‘voiceless’ have actually been reinforced in my own attempts to recruit them as participants in my own research. Despite what I thought were painstaking considerations around engaging, creative and time-efficient methods of data collection, encouraging girls to work as co-participants in my current research continues to be a significant barrier. When planning, I carefully considered power relations and how to research with, opposed to on participants; however, I did not anticipate the issues which have arisen around attempting to recruit girls through systems and institutions from which they may have already been self-alienated. For my research this will make me (re)consider the challenges and ethics of recruitment as a key facet of research design and reflect on how to support girls’ views and contributions in research when, as suggested, they may have been ‘silenced’, and whether I am trying to listen to girls’ voices and ‘reach’ them in the wrong places.


Agenda Alliance. (2021). Girls at risk of exclusion: Girls Speak briefing.

Clarke, G., Boorman, G., & Nind, M. (2011). ‘If they don’t listen I shout, and when I shout they listen’: Hearing the voices of girls with BESD. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 765–780.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). Timpson review of school exclusions.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2021). Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England, Academic Year 2019/20. 

Osler, A., Street, C., Lall, M., & Vincent, K. (2002). Girls and exclusion from school. New Policy Institute. 

Owen, D. (2019). What is off-rolling, and how does Ofsted look at it on inspection? Ofsted blog. 

Ringrose, J. (2007). Successful girls? Complicating post-feminist, neoliberal discourses of educational achievement and gender equality. Gender and Education. 19(4), 471–489.

Russell, L., & Thomson, P. (2011). Girls and gender in alternative education provision. Ethnography and Education, 6(3), 293–308.

UNISON. (2018). Educational exclusion and the disproportionate impact on girls. 2019 National Women’s Conference.