'Off-rolling is unethical, inappropriate and beyond repugnant – the consequences are devastating'

A year ago, this headteachers' leader had never heard of 'off-rolling' – but now, he writes, you can barely escape it. It's a process which is hugely damaging for our most vulnerable students

Geoff Barton

A county council is proposing to fine schools if they permanently exclude a pupil

It’s that season again – "word of the year" time. Over at Collins Dictionaries, the winner of this year’s linguistic sweepstake has been announced and it’s a predictable but worthy phrase: "fake news".

If I were compiling a lexicographical word of the year from the world of education, I’d go for a term that I don’t think a year ago I’d heard or used. Now I hear it a lot. In fact, I hear it too much. "Off-rolling".

It’s a term that describes a process that ought to worry us.

Because, if the test of an education system is what it does for its most vulnerable – its most marginalised – then this is a word that is often about those young people.

It’s a concept that’s been around in the dark shadows of educational practice for years. But it has shifted more centrally because of some practice which – from where I sit – looks pretty unethical.

Off-rolling is precisely what it says. It’s the removal by one means or another, of students from a school’s roll.

Referrals and exclusions

In Shanghai the other week, I asked a secondary leader about off-rolling. “If a student is naughty, can you exclude them?” I asked. This deputy headteacher looked at me aghast. “You aren’t allowed to move a student out of a class, let alone out of a school,” she told me.

It’s not the same here. As headteacher for 15 years of a maintained school in Suffolk, I used to do all I could to make sure we stayed true to our vision of a comprehensive school that was a microcosm of society, there for everyone irrespective of their background. For the majority of young people, that worked.

But as headteacher, you would periodically encounter students whose attitudes and behaviour made it impossible us to accommodate or contain them. This is where local agreements, managed moves from one school to another, placements into pupil referral units, all gave some limited scope to give the pupil a second or third chance to succeed within our education system.

For students who were supremely disruptive, defiant, violent or threatening, there was permanent exclusion. Sometimes it was the only way to ensure alternative provision was found for the student, that order was restored for the school community, and that our school’s values and standards were publicly reaffirmed.

Off-rolling consequences

I’m not misty-eyed about the need for some children sometimes to move off-roll from one institution to another. But I worry about the scale of off-rolling I’m now hearing about from the school and college leaders I routinely meet – and, increasingly, from the people I talk to in offices in Whitehall.

Because, as I say, off-rolling has very real human consequences.

Here’s two key findings from some research by Education Datalab, tellingly entitled "Who’s Left?":

  • Outcomes for all groups of pupils who leave the roll of a mainstream school are poor, with only around one per cent of children who leave to state alternative provision or a special school achieving five good GCSEs.
  • There exists a previously unidentified group of nearly 20,000 children who leave the rolls of mainstream secondary schools to a range of other destinations for whom outcomes are also very poor, with only six per cent recorded as achieving five good GCSEs.


Off-rolling isn’t just about macho demonstrations of permanent exclusion to signal publicly that a school is under new management. It isn’t just about calling in the parents of the most disruptive students and "advising" them to apply to the school across town with surplus places to avoid having "permanent exclusion" imprinted on your child’s school record. Off-rolling can be even more repugnant.

Here’s an email from a special needs coordinator at a secondary school in the south of England.

I had a meeting today with some Year 6 parents. They have a child with complex needs, he receives high needs funding and is currently at Primary A. They were keen to tell me about how Secondary B told them that they would not be able to support their child, he would be isolated working in one room, they would not be able to protect him from six-foot students and he couldn't do GCSEs so he would leave with nothing. The parents said to him that surely you cannot say no to a child with Send, but they were told that as long as Secondary C has a place somewhere, they don't have to take him. This isn't the first time a parent has told me that they were encouraged to go elsewhere.

The Association of School and College Leaders is proud to have recently established an Ethical Leadership Commission, the beginning of a process to articulate the ethical values that should underpin the UK’s education leaders.

At a time of too many stories of unethical practice, too much language linked to inappropriate conduct, this focus on ethical leadership has never mattered more – to us and to the young and often vulnerable young people for whom we are the educational guardians.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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