school pupil getty
Exclusion and the strategic leadership role of Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) in England: planning for COVID-19 and future crises Dr Elizabeth J Done (Principal Investigator, University of Plymouth) and Helen Knowler (Co-Investigator, University of Exeter) 
Researchers at the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter have won a British Educational Research Association (BERA) Small Award to study the role of SENCos during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
The study forms part of a multi-stranded project researching exclusionary pressures and practices in schools in England from the perspectives of senior school leaders (Done & Knowler 2020a, 2020b), SENCos, parents (Done et al. forthcoming), pupils and educational professionals, e.g. educational psychologists. 
Such practices include formal exclusion, ‘off rolling’ (Ofsted 2019), ‘strategic school exclusion’ (Machin & Sandi 2018) and separation of ‘vulnerable’ children from their peers within school. 
Not all SENCos are in senior management teams and their capacity to influence decision-making varies. Anecdotal reports suggest circumstances produced by COVID-19 may have exacerbated such pressures and tensions. 
Dr Elizabeth Done, University of Plymouth, and Helen Knowler, University of Exeter) wish to learn whether, and how, SENCos participated in COVID-19 induced school planning for lockdown, provision for ‘vulnerable’ pupils, and full school reopening, and explore SENCos’ perspectives on exclusionary pressures during this time.
Liz and Helen are involved in SENCos training through the university-based National Award for SEN Coordination and are, therefore, keen to ensure the SENCo ‘voice’ is heard. They have previously investigated the discursive tensions evidenced in policy around inclusive education and SENCo-directed statutory guidance (Done 2019; Done & Murphy 2018; Done, Murphy & Knowler 2015).
The researchers have dubbed their overall research strategy across the multiple strands a ‘wavelength’ methodology where the objective is not a unifying analytical narrative but, rather, a ‘tuning in’ to very different ‘voices’ in order to illustrate the complexity of the field.
The SENCo strand of this research comprises a national quantitative survey of practicing SENCos, focus groups and in depth interviews with SENCos in southwest England. The research asks:
  • How have SENCOs been involved in planning for offsite provision and for onsite provision for ‘vulnerable’ children during CV-19 lockdown conditions?
  • How are SENCOs involved in SLT decision-making about post-COVID-19 provision?
  • How are SENCOs working to prevent exclusion and off-rolling during COVID-19 lockdown conditions?


Parent study

53 parents of children with ‘special’ educational needs completed an online qualitative questionnaire that sought to find out more about their understanding and experiences of off rolling (illegal school exclusion). 
Findings relating to SENCos feature in Done et al., Support for Learning (forthcoming) and were presented at ECER 2020.

Senior school leader study

Helen Knowler (University of Exeter) and Dr Elizabeth J Done (University of Plymouth)

Senior school leader Twitter post study

A content analysis of school leaders’ conversations about Off Rolling on Twitter. This was due to be presented at the September 2020 BERA conference by Helen Knowler, Elizabeth J. Done and Alice Potter. Conference cancelled due to COVID-19.


Dr Done delivered a keynote at a UNICEF and Turkish Ministry of Education international conference on 4 March 2020 in Ankara and presented a paper at the European Conference of Educational Research (online) on 28 August 2020. She is presenting at a Public Symposium hosted by the University of Exeter on 7 October where her talk is entitled – Off rolling: A ‘new normal’? Theoretical Perspectives.International Inclusive ECE Conference in Turkey (UNICEF and Turkish Ministry of National Education), Ankara, Turkey, 4–5 March 2020
Keynote title: Government policy around inclusive education and the implications for teachers, families and children in the UK
Abstract: The relevance and value of a post-structuralist theoretical orientation when considering inclusion-related policy will be briefly explained, followed by the identification of recurrent themes in a post-structuralist analysis of UK policy developments. These themes include: a confused policy landscape that EY teachers must navigate, rights as a necessary but not sufficient condition of inclusion, and inclusion as an ethical (not economic) project that rejects deficit models of disability. Foucault (1982, p.778) insists on checking “the type of reality with which we are dealing” and, relatedly, the historical conditions of prevailing discursive fabrications to provide “historical awareness of our present circumstance”. Despite a longstanding inclusion agenda in the UK, academic performance continues to be prioritised with implications for teachers, families and children. An implicit binary of worthiness / unworthiness favours children perceived to potentially contribute to national economic capital. Consequently, the nature of caring has changed and teachers are under pressure to identify special needs and disabilities (SEND) as early as possible in a context of inadequate resourcing, external support and training, and competitive pressures. Children will leave EYE to enter an educational system which is test result driven and in which mental health is increasingly an issue. Parents may find they are liaising with schools where their child’s needs are not understood or cannot be adequately supported, or they may find schools refusing admission or experience pressure to move their child to a different setting. It is argued that a post-structuralist analysis permits recognition that a rhetoric of inclusion or inclusive education can serve to obscure tensions between economic, socio-political and ethical agendas.
Thematic questions addressed:
  • How do senior leaders and parents of children in mainstream secondary schools in England understand and explain the practice of off rolling?
  • What are the challenges and dilemmas surrounding this practice for senior leaders and parents?
  • What is the personal and professional impact on senior leaders and parents of involvement in cases that might be defined as off rolling?
  • What do senior leaders and parents say about how the practice of off rolling might be avoided in England?
Public Symposium Exeter University, 7 October 2020
The Universities of Plymouth and Exeter have organized a series of online public symposia to share findings from ongoing and very recently completed research into varied aspects of off rolling (illegal exclusionary practices in England's schools). The first event was led by Dr Elizabeth J. Done (Plymouth Institute of Education, University of Plymouth) who introduced the topic and then outlined the theoretical perspectives which have informed this collaborative multi-stranded research project to date. Alice Potter (a former Plymouth graduate in Educational Studies) also shared findings from a project strand focusing on social media posts related to off rolling, followed by Hannah Bayton (from Exeter's G.S.E.) who is a practicing educational psychologist and whose recent doctoral research focused on the parental experience of off rolling and 'coerced' home education. The event was closed by Helen Knowler (G.S.E., University of Exeter and co-investigator with Dr Done) who outlined future strands of this ongoing research.


Principle Investigator: Dr Elizabeth J. Done 

Dr Done is a Lecturer in Inclusion in the Plymouth Institute of Education at the University of Plymouth and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Exeter (G.S.E).

Liz specialises in inclusion, critical theory and teachers’ professional development. She supervises doctoral students researching inclusion-related topics and leads postgraduate modules related to inclusive education. A key interest is senior leaders’ and educational professionals’ negotiation of conflicting governmental imperatives.

Co-Investigators: Helen Knowler

Helen Knowler is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Exeter. She teaches and researches in the field of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and her current focus relates to the prevention of permanent exclusion of pupils from school. Helen specialises in developing research that is collaborative and participatory and has an interest in the development and use of visual research methods in Education Research.

Research Assistants: Alice Potter, Eleanor Warnes

Alice Potter is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of Exeter.

Eleanor Warnes is currently undertaking an MA at the University of Exeter.


Done, E.J. & Knowler, H.(2021) ‘Off-rolling’ and the art of visibility / invisibility: exploring senior leaders’ views of ‘strategic’ school exclusion in England. British Education Research Journal. Published online 4 March 2021. 

Done, E.J., Knowler, H., Warnes, E. and Pickett-Jones, B. (2021) Think piece on parents, ‘off rolling’ and wavelength methodology: issues for SENCos. Support for Learning. Published online 2 February 2021.

Clarke, A.L, & Done, E.J. (2021). Balancing pressures for Special Educational Needs Coordinators as managers, leaders and advocates in the emerging context of the COVID-19 pandemic. British Journal of Special Education. Published online 1 March 2021.

Done, E.J., & Knowler, H. (2020). Exploring senior school leaders’ and parents’ & carers’ perspectives on illegal school exclusions or 'off rolling' in England. Paper presented at the European Conference of Education Research (online) 28th August 2020.  

Done, E.J. & Knowler, H. (2020a) Painful invisibilities: Roll management or ‘off-rolling’ and professional identity. British Education Research Journal 46(3): 516-531.

Done, E.J. & Knowler, H. (2020b) A tension between rationalities: “off-rolling” as gaming and the implications for head teachers and the inclusion agenda. Educational Review, in press.

Done, E.J. (2019) Education governance and the responsibility to include: teachers as a site of discursive tension. In J. Allan, V. Harwood, C. Jørgensen (eds.) World Yearbook of Education 2020. London: Routledge.

Ofsted (2019) The annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2017 / 2018. Retrieved 10 February 2019, from

Done, E.J., & Murphy, M. (2018). The responsibilisation of teachers: A neoliberal solution to the problem of inclusion. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 39(1), 142-155. doi: 10.1080/01596306.2016.1243517

Machin, S. & Sandi, M. (2018) Autonomous schools and strategic pupil exclusion. Centre for Economic Performance, discussion paper no.1527, January 2018.

Done, E.J., Murphy, M., & Knowler, H. (2015). Mandatory accreditation for Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators: Biopolitics, neoliberal managerialism and the Deleuzo–Guattarian ‘war machine’. Journal of Education Policy, 30, 866-100. doi:10.1080/02680939.2014.905872

Done, E.J., Knowler, H., Pickett-Jones, B. & Warnes, E. (forthcoming) Think piece on parents, ‘off rolling’ and wavelength methodology: issues for SENCos. Support for Learning