The phenomenon of ‘off-rolling’ in English state maintained schools which is widening the social divide.

A key challenge for school leaders, who are pulled in many different directions by various stakeholders and policies, is the prioritizing of interests.  Professor Trevor Male describes some of the challenges facing headteachers in England.


In my last blog Papering Over the Cracks in the System published at the end of March, I hinted that some schools and multi-school organisations were exploiting the state school system by conveniently placing challenging students into alternative provision so their attainment outcomes (generally lower) did not damage the headline performance figures. In other words, such organisations had found ways to deal only with students who would enhance overall performance in terms of attainment and reputation. This objective, I argued, could be achieved in many ways, but especially through the removal of troublesome students through a process of ‘off-rolling’. Sadly, this process has been shown to be on the rise and is now one which is becoming a matter of grave concern, leading to a close focus from the state education system on how alternative provision is being (mis)used when seeking to establish and maintain performance outcomes that are deemed acceptable in a high stakes accountability environment.

A very recent research report by two of my colleagues ‘Hierarchy, Markets and Networks’ attracted headlines and major coverage in national newspapers as it appeared to demonstrate that high performing and improving schools are accepting fewer children from poor backgrounds. In fact, the Sunday Observer headline was: ‘Tory education revolution has fuelled inequality in our schools’ when reporting on the key findings from a four-year investigation. The system was now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of particular groups of, usually more vulnerable children”, with some schools being found to be engaged in “aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream-skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students”. The full report can be accessed via the hyperlink above, but for this blog the key issue is the concept of off-rolling which seems to be decreasing the life chances of children from poor back grounds and widening the social divide in England. So, what is the concept of off-rolling and to what extent is it being witnessed?

‘Off-rolling’ happens where a student is encouraged off the roll of a mainstream school in an informal exclusion in which the school’s best interests have trumped the pupil’s. School league tables, broadly speaking, only measure those who remain on the school roll in January of Year 11, giving schools a perverse incentive to lose pupils who would bring results down (Education Datalab). My first foray to establish something more concrete about this phenomenon was in March with an article in my LinkedIn account entitled ‘Fixed term exclusions on the rise?’, for which I appended this appropriate photograph.

In the post I cited the report from the Times Educational Supplement which drew attention to the actions of one academy chain which had been accused of contributing to a “meteoric rise” in exclusions in some of the areas where it operates.  That article itself pointed to concerns raised earlier in the year in an Ofsted report which raised concerns about the high rates of fixed-period exclusions in the North of England. At the time of writing the academy chain was not releasing the figures relating to exclusions, but I argued it did appear that we were seeing concrete evidence of gaming the system by managing the school population.  Since then I have done a little more research.

In June of this year Ofsted published its own blog on ‘off-rolling’ in which they had analysed data on pupils who leave their state-funded secondary school before the end of key stage 4. Over 19,000 pupils (some 4 per cent of the Year 10 population) did not progress from year 10 to year 11 in the same state-funded secondary school, with only half re-enrolling at another school.  Children with special educational needs, children eligible for free school meals, children looked after and some minority ethnic groups were all more likely to leave their school, they reported. Whilst several possible, legitimate reasons were offered, the evidence shows a more than doubling of students with special educational needs who leave their school between years 10 and 11 and more than a quarter of all students that leave their school going to state-funded alternative provision/pupil referral units. The incidence of this possible ‘off-rolling’ is not evenly spread across the sector, they indicated, with a higher proportion of schools in London seeing movement of pupils compared to other areas of the country. Academies, particularly those in some multi-academy trusts, appear to be losing proportionately more pupils than local authority schools. Conversely, local authority schools seem to be taking on proportionately more pupils.

Pupil movements between year 10 in 2016 and year 11 in 2017


The issue is not related to just the final year of secondary schooling, however, with some 22,000 students leaving mainstream state schools at some point between Year 7 and Year 11 and not being recorded in state education again, most of whom were considered as vulnerable. Education Datalab recognise that some of these students will have moved to independent schools and others will be receiving a broad, effective education through home-schooling estimate. Nevertheless, around 15,400 students were either not recorded as having taken any final key stage examination, or, if they did, whose results did not count towards any establishment. Whilst some 50-60% of this group may have left the English school system by having moved to one of the other home nations, having emigrated, or, in a small number of sad cases, died, it is estimated the other 6,200-7,700 pupils remain in the country who do not have results that counted towards any establishment.

Off-rolling exists, so what should we be doing?

At the time of writing this blog the government is considering several mechanisms to ensure that schools would retain accountability for students they send to alternative provision or exclude, but have stopped short of saying that the changes would go ahead (Education Datalab). Sam Strickland, a serving headteacher, mounts a strong defence of the process of permanent exclusion in his blog of June, 2018, arguing that most “exclusions and the system of checks and balances surrounding them is so stringent that a Head may as well exclude themselves than exclude a student if there is insufficient evidence in place to do so”.   Nevertheless, he does recognise that it is possible for devious headteachers to utilise the permanent exclusion to enhance their exam result outcomes. Strickland calls for balance and offers a list of non-negotiables that would warrant exclusion.

Perhaps the real problem lies with the impact of high stakes accountability illustrated by Greany & Higham in their report which illustrated increased pressure for schools to perform against measured targets as student level data is used nationally to hold them publicly accountable, allowing the state to continue to steer the system from a distance and to increasingly intervene and coerce when and where it deems necessary. The research showed schools reporting a constant need to focus on national exam results and to prepare for the possibility of an Ofsted inspection. Many headteachers argued that this now demands greater consistency and self-policing, with more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of school leaders agreeing with the statement ‘making sure my school does well in Ofsted inspections is one of my top priorities’. As a result, they conclude, case study school leaders regularly felt incentivized to prioritise the interests of the school over the interests of certain groups of, usually more vulnerable, children.

My question is – in what ways are such actions subscribing to the comprehensive ideal that was the nation’s vision for schooling in the latter part of the previous century? That ideal is perhaps best summed up in the quote from Maurice Holt: “education should be accessible to all pupils regardless of capacity or background, and ‘worthwhileness’, in that the curriculum has to be of defensible value so that it enhances the future lives of its students”. Where is sustained accountability and a school-led improvement system taking us?

At a personal level I remain shocked at the seemingly callous nature of a school system which repeatedly undermines the life chances of already vulnerable children. My only solution is for all actors to subscribe to the notion of student achievement, rather than merely attainment and provide children with an education (not schooling) that equips them for life. I am still aligned to the four pillars of learning presented in the UNESCO report of 1996 Learning – The treasure within: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be and would love to see them enacted in practice, rather than debated in principle.

I will close this blog with the hopes and aspirations of Edward Timpson who is leading the Department for Education’s exclusions review in England:

No parent sets out on that journey wanting or believing their child will be excluded from school. Yet in 2015/16 the parents of 6,685 children in England faced that realisation. Why?

That is the question, amongst others, my review of school exclusions is seeking to address. It isn’t about whether we should or shouldn’t have school exclusions, as sadly there will always be occasions where, despite being used, as the Secretary of State said, as a last resort, exclusion is the only viable route left to take. It’s about understanding not just why in 2015/16 0.08 per cent of children were permanently excluded from state funded schools in England, but why, as the Government’s Race Disparity Audit revealed, for some groups of children, including black Caribbean and Gypsy Roma and Traveller children, those with special educational needs, pupils eligible for free school meals, children in need and those in care, the rates of exclusion are much higher. I want to learn too about the approaches schools take to avoid exclusions and support those at risk, such as working with other local schools on managed moves to another local school, which can act as a fresh start with the right support for children at risk of exclusion.

That means considering carefully the drivers behind exclusion and looking in depth at current practice. We need to establish how schools and supporting agencies work together in relation to exclusions and whether (or not) it is effective in improving outcomes for those children.

Perhaps he could start by making sure making sure that schools focus more on the success, happiness, well-being and future capability of its student population as adults than whether it does well in Ofsted inspections. What do you think?

Meet Dr. Male

Thinking and Acting Strategically to Improve Teacher-Parent Relations

Tony Townsend, Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, describes an exciting and innovative project that resulted from a professional learning program.

The importance of maximizing learning outcomes, for all students in all schools across an educational system in a rapidly changing, increasingly diverse society, one that is trending towards a knowledge-led economy, is obvious. To do this we need to think about school autonomy (decentralising some of the decisions about education to the school), school effectiveness (improving the achievement of students), and school leadership (for the two previous factors to work, the quality of school leadership has been shown to be critical).

Governments around the world continue to search for the silver bullet that provides a solution, at both the system level and the school level. Since 2013, over 250 Australian public schools have been made Independent Public Schools (IPS) by the Queensland Government based on the argument that doing so “recognises the best decision-making often occurs at a local level through direct response to local community needs and aspiration”, one that stemmed from an identified commitment to “providing state schools with greater autonomy in decision-making and increased capacity to work in new ways to maximise learning outcomes”… to enable them to “have greater freedom to find their own strategic direction and make decisions which will directly benefit their students” [1].

This blog considers the impact of a professional learning program called the Principals as Strategic Leaders (PASL) on the ways in which principals lead their schools in innovative ways. The four-module program, conducted over nine months, focused on developing strategic thinking, strategic execution and entrepreneurial leadership. Principals from 26 schools, sometimes with the support of others in their leadership team, making a total of 45 people in the cohort, undertook the program. The program contained four modules, commenced in August 2016 and was completed in February 2017. Research was conducted in conjunction with the program and the subsequent implementation of the strategic plans drawn up by the schools and a series of case studies were conducted over the course of 2017 to gain a deeper understanding of how school leaders actually used strategic leadership to guide their schools in innovative ways. Data was collected through interviews, document analysis and focus group discussions.

In one primary school about an hour west of Brisbane the chosen innovation was to improve teacher and parent understanding of the role played by each in the development of highly successful students and to further develop the relationships between home and school in ways that would support improved student engagement, learning, and achievement. The principal outlined how the school had changed in recent times:

…we have more than doubled in size within sort of a two-year period … new families have come in, a lot of movement from other schools coming through as well … this school’s reputation in particular has picked up and bringing in a lot of the private schools in particular this year as well … it was a very strong apostolic stronghold, with the church down here being the biggest apostolic in the southern hemisphere. So, they considered this school to be theirs. You’ve now got Catholics coming into the place as well …a clientele in terms of their parents’ employment, university lecturers, scientists, all that sort of stuff, as well as businesses from you know, going to Brisbane, so it’s changed from that whole rural school to where it is quite a complex mix of parents that are coming into it…

The change in the school’s demography brought about some new problems. Whereas some parents were really committed to their child’s education and wanted to participate, other parents were not so active and the school’s attendance rates suffered.

We’ve got a whole lot of parents who understand that they’ve got a big part to play and are confident that they can support their children’s education. And we’ve got a core of people who don’t realise the importance and don’t think that they have the capabilities to support their children’s education.

Having some parents wanting to be more involved seemed to be a threat to some of the teachers:

It was a complex mix of parents in the play, but it was also alternating to the mindset of teachers to enter those questions of the parents, who are starting to become more and more on their doorstep, asking you know, what’s going on … all of a sudden, teachers are seeing themselves as fishbowls, in terms of that. And changing perceptions of what parents now expect of them as well, so trying to meet in the middle and gain some ground on what’s going to work best for our school.

To overcome the twin issues of attendance and the need to build better relations between teachers and parents, two strategic decisions were made. The first decision was called the Latte Lounge and the second, the Performance Pact. The two were connected by a clear understanding that if parents were interested enough to come into the school (through the Latte Lounge) then it was important for these meetings to have meaning and significance. The relationship between the two was developed through the use of a school slogan, CLEAR – for Celebrate, Learning, Excellence, Attitude, and Respect – which allowed students to, in the principal’s words, “Dream, Believe, Strive, Succeed, which I think is very powerful. And that’s really it in a nutshell, dream, believe, strive, succeed…

The Latte Lounge brought people into the school in an informal way but allowed the school to keep them abreast of what the school was trying to do.

The purpose of the Latte Lounge was to share information with parents that might not normally come to the school for formal parent-teacher meetings but would be prepared to come to a more informal conversation over coffee.

It encouraged parents that were not on formal committees in the school to become more involved.

… the one thing we noticed was there were a group of parents who are involved in the P and C, and we wanted to get different groups involved in the school, not just that group who had the time and the knowledge and the confidence to come and do tuckshop and fundraising and that kind of thing.

But as parents’ confidence grew, it was also possible to provide parents with much more specific information about ways to support their children and to develop a shared understanding of what the school was trying to do.

One of the things we also did, because we started doing a literacy program called SSP. And so, one of the Latte Lounges focused on that and so I was able to give background for that, and what we were doing in class. So, all parents across the school could come …

Our discussions have been around, okay, how can we help you get your child to that place that we need them to be. So, there’s been a lot of those conversations through the Latte Lounge.

Parents interviewed at the school were very positive about the Latte Lounge.

And it’s not like a meeting setting, it’s just an informal chat … an informal chat, get together, have a coffee, something to eat … very relaxed environment.

The Latte Lounge assisted parents to have a better understanding of how to support their child:

I go to the Latte Lounges and quite often people go “I don’t understand the Performance Pacts, I don’t understand the way they rate it and that”. So, [principal] will actually get it all up on the screen … and go, right, this is how you read it, this is how you work it, this is where your child’s at, sort of thing.

The second strategic decision was the introduction of the Performance Pact. The Performance Pact is a contract between the school and the parents, one that indicates that if the parents commit to ensuring that their child attends school, that the school will commit to do everything it can to ensure that the child progresses at an appropriate rate.

To be on the Performance Pact, they’ve got to maintain a 95% attendance rate throughout the whole year, and we monitor that. So, if they don’t achieve it in a five-week cycle, I send a warning letter home to parents. If, in the next five-week cycle, they still don’t improve the 95 % … I send a letter home to parents stating that their Performance Pact is on hold and they don’t get the additional support that we’re offering … until they get their percentage back up again.

The Performance Pact not only placed expectations on parents to ensure that students attended classes for at least 95% of the time, but the school also had to live up to their side of the bargain as well. School leaders spend two evenings a week and two mornings a week working with students to enable them to have the best chance of success.

We offer after school tutoring…. Twice a week, after school…. That’s for students that we’ve identified through our data that haven’t made enough progress towards their goals, we give that additional support to them until they achieve that goal…. The parents of those children are very supportive … they are prepared to wait and pick their children up later, or just simply wait at school until their children are finished…

…we’ve got before school homework support [twice a week] for students, basically who, for some reason or another, don’t have the parent support at home to complete the homework, or the parent lives are very busy. Those sorts of things. So, we’re offering two days a week, in the mornings, where we take the kids from eight to half past eight, to get that homework completed for those kids.

A parent interviewed at the school expressed her appreciation for this concerted approach to support her child’s learning.

…my son, he’s on the Performance Pact but he was sort of still working towards his goals so they offered him the tutoring after school. And so, they’re wanting to help and see your child achieve those goals no matter where they are.

The Performance Pact has generated positive outcomes, including a more focused approach to identifying specific student learning needs and also to have wider, more general conversations about academic standards.

…there’s been a lot of those conversations, both with teachers and parents, about what, you know, performance looks like. What do academic standards look like?

The Performance Pact has also streamlined the reporting system in the school. With the Performance Pact providing parents with regular information about their children and with the Latte Lounge providing opportunities for parents to learn about what is happening in the school and to be able to ask questions about issues they see as important, then detailed reports in the middle and at the end of the year are not necessary.

… with report cards, [we are] very much making it just one very simple comment. Because the parents are getting so much information throughout the year, there is no need to have that very detailed report card now, because a report card, at the end of the day, is just another piece of information to these parents now, because it really doesn’t tell them anything more.

Both the Latte Lounge and the Performance Pact have made a difference to the culture of the school as can been seen by one comment by a teacher about the celebration to which all students on the Performance Pact are invited and a comment from the parent about the extra work done by people in the school to support the students.

The Latte Lounge is one way and having the display at the end of the term to celebrate learning was a way to get other people in and I was sceptical at first because the first time we had it was the last day of term one just before Easter. I thought no one’s going to turn up there. It was massive … there were a lot of parents who were there that I’d never seen before … I had a lot, I had probably I think ten, a dozen parents come in and we had the kids’ bookwork open and they came in and they chatted and looked at what the kids were doing.

The best thing that’s happened to the school is introducing the homework clubs and the after-school tutoring. I think that’s just great. It’s an expense that the parents don’t have because it is offered to them free if your child meets the certain requirements. So, if they’re struggling at school, if you get them here every day on time, and they’re here 95% of the time, they actually get offered that free tutoring … if you can’t get your kids there or if they have so many days off you don’t get offered that free tutoring because the kids aren’t here to learn.

Perhaps the most significant outcome for the school in this project is the way parents talk about and support the school.

I recommended it to her [the other parent] … I drive the extra 10 minutes to come out here rather than the five-minute one where we’re at. A lot of parents, they bypass their closest school to come here. There’s probably three or four closer schools that I could send my child to, or could have sent my girls to, but I drove past them to come here.

I’ve gone past three [schools] just to get here, probably four, yeah.

The Homework Room, where the extra sessions are held

In summary, this school is an excellent example of both strategic thinking and strategic leadership. Strategic thinking started from the data related to a changing demography with changing expectations, and the leadership team identified the need to enhance the relationship between teachers and parents in ways that created a partnership approach to improving student outcomes. Other data told the school leaders that attendance was a problem and that this contributed to some students not achieving. Two major entrepreneurial initiatives were undertaken, the Performance Pact and the Latte Lounge: the former to address, specifically, attendance issues and student achievement, and the latter as a means of communicating what the school was trying to do with parents. Strategic execution of these two main avenues towards higher levels of student achievement involved the elements associated with strategic leadership (Pisapia, 2009[2]): transformation (the culture of the school changed), management (expectations were identified and enforced), bridging (connecting teachers and parents in different ways), and bartering (higher levels of teacher-parent interactions during the year meant that annual student reports could be simplified). The leadership team recognised that bonding, especially reaching out to teachers to support them through this ongoing process, was an issue that needed additional work. Overall, however, school leaders, teachers, and parents alike were positive about the steps that the school had taken and were confident that what had been accomplished in 2017 can be further built on in years to come.

What the PaSL program and the case study has shown is that principals, if given the right tools and the authority to make change, are able to think and act strategically in ways that supports the development of their school community. The issue of context is important as is the issue of equity and, given the opportunities and skills, principals may be able to identify, plan and implement innovative approaches to improving student learning in ways that provide local solutions to what might be perceived as global problems.

The school slogan – outside the classrooms and in the newsletter


[1]   Independent Public Schools, Department of Education and Training website, downloaded 14/09/2015

[2] Pisapia, J. (2009). The strategic leader: New tactics for a globalizing world. Charlotte: Information Age Publishers

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Clean water & toilets: Foundations for learning in low-income countries


The other day my husband stated in an exasperated voice: “So, you got an advanced degree and you work in schools in sub-Saharan Africa and South America yet all you talk about are toilets. Isn’t that a waste of your education? Shouldn’t you be spending your time figuring out how to improve student achievement?”

Well, it jolted me for a few seconds and then I responded—but that’s what I am doing! It’s taken me years to understand that, yes—high quality teaching and strong school leadership will lead to improved student learning outcomes—but the school’s physical learning environment—the conditions for learning come first. Sanitation and nutrition are the foundation for learning and that’s why I have taken hundreds of photos of bathrooms and kitchens in schools around the world– so I can focus on student learning. Maybe my understanding of the importance of good sanitation and healthy children –washrooms and kitchens– is a key reason I did get degrees in education.

Over the last few years of working in mostly low-fee private schools in low and middle-income nations, I’ve come to understand that you can’t have a school with students successfully learning, without having a school with clean toilets. Of course, the corollary is not necessarily true, clean toilets do not equal improved learning. But, I am sure that each child and adult in a school having access to toilets that are clean, and in sufficient number for enrollment, is a basic condition for improving student learning. And by clean, at a minimum I mean– they don’t smell, there isn’t exposed dirty paper and there are no flies.

Age appropriate sinks with soap in an Ethiopian school.

According to UNICEF In 60 countries in the developing world, more than half of primary schools have no adequate water facilities and nearly two thirds lack adequate sanitation. Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and lack of hygiene not only affect the health, safety, and quality of life of children; they also claim the lives of an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five who die each year from diarrhea.

The research is clear. Schools with better sanitation facilities report higher attendance and overall better health for children. We know that providing better water, sanitation and hygiene services in schools reduces hygiene-related diseases and can help curb absenteeism due to missing school because of diarrhea. We also know that girls are reluctant to continue their schooling when toilets and washing facilities are either unavailable or are not private, safe, and clean.

According to the United Nations and UNICEF, one in five girls of primary-school age are not in school, compared to one in six boys. One factor accounting for this difference is the lack of sanitation facilities for girls reaching puberty. The installation of toilets and latrines may enable school children, especially menstruating girls, to further their education by remaining in school (see our March 2018 blog). If girls at puberty do not feel safe by having access to a private toilet area and if we do not provide access for students with disabilities, then absenteeism increases.

I’ve visited many schools that are oases for children. In far too many cases schools

Ghana: New sink with soap and handwashing instructions added to school after training

are surrounded by extreme poverty, thus all types of services such as good roads, adequate drainage, easily available clean

drinking water, etc. are missing. Schools and the adults working in them are role models for youth and sanitation is key because poor sanitary conditions can lead to disease and minimal learning.

So, what can school leaders do to ensure that children and adults in schools are learning and teaching in sanitary conditions?

Here are some of the strategies we discussed with school leaders and trainers during a recent workshop:

  • Make the School Leadership Team (Head Teachers, Directors, Coordinators, Proprietors, and others) aware of the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. They have an important role to play through their work with teachers and other staff, schoolchildren, and families. Provide guidance and support so that they can promote the development and maintenance of a healthy school environment.
  • Find out if your country has school facility standards (E.g., Ghana, Peru, and Rwanda have guidelines while Burkina Faso and Liberia do not.). Usually the standards are posted on the Ministry of Education’s website or ask your local district supervisor. If standards do not exist here is a great resource: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Standards for Schools in Low-cost Settings
  • Create a School Improvement Plan that includes setting targets for water, sanitation and hygiene. If you can’t make all the changes immediately, prioritize the improvements and phase them in so that the most urgent problems are targeted immediately, and other changes can subsequently be phased in.
  • Provide sanitation and hygiene training and supervision to all adults. Staff training is crucial and the goal is a healthy school environment. Since teachers and other staff are role models for students, be sure to give these topics a central place in in-service teacher training.
  • Develop and enforce school sanitation rules and procedures. Once the washrooms and toilets are ready for use create a maintenance plan and be sure to regularly monitor the facilities. Assign someone (or a group) to be responsible for daily cleaning; include who is responsible when the sink or toilet are not working or if there are problems with the water.
  • Support the provision of consumables, such as soap.
  • Encourage parents to support these efforts. Work with the Parent-Teacher Association and provide parent education programs on hygiene, nutrition and sanitation.
  • Partner with community groups or NGOs to build water and toilet facilities for the students and the surrounding community to use.
Burkina Faso
Separate toilets for boys and girls

Every child—and teacher— has a right to a school with clean water and sanitary toilets!


Ghana: Toilets for adults

Once the basic conditions for learning are ensured, then we can focus on why we are at school—to optimize learning.

Meet Dr. Cordeiro