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Don't just say yes to exclusion

Judge reminds governors that rubber-stamping heads' decisions is not good enough. Chris Johnston reports.

HEAD Bernadette Doherty hit the headlines when she excluded 13 pupils for three days from her Newcastle primary in May.

In the same month, a less widely publicised court case underlined the importance of governors' roles in endorsing or overturning heads' exclusion decisions.

A boy whose permanent exclusion from Kingsmead secondary school in Enfield was upheld by a committee of governors and an independent appeal panel tried to get the case reconsidered by the courts.

Mr Justice Mitchell dismissed the application for a judicial review - but reminded members of governor discipline committees of the need for both fairness and the appearance of fairness when reviewing a headteacher's decision to exclude a pupil permanently.

The committee was statutory, not token, and "most certainly was not there to rubber stamp the headteacher's decision", he added. Unless it truly acted as an independent reviewing body, it "served no purpose whatsoever".

He also left the door open for future judicial reviews, noting that the fact an appeal had been heard by an independent panel did not prevent going to courts over discipline committee decisions.

Both heads and governors acknowledge that exclusions are a difficult field. Permanent exclusions fell by a third between 1997-8 and 1999-00, two years ahead of a government target date. But heads and teachers have complained of rising indiscipline, and last year exclusions rose for the first time since 1997, from 8,323 to 9,200.

Ministers have no new goals for reducing the numbers, and revised guidance to appeals panels recommends they do not overturn exclusions for violence, threats of violence, carrying weapons and drug-dealing. Just under a third of parents were successful in their appeals in 2000-1.

Russell Clarke, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads'

Association, believes most governors on discipline committees take their responsibilities very seriously, particularly as society is becoming more litigious.

He said Mr Justice Mitchell's comments reinforced the importance of heads sticking to the rules and not cutting corners. "Only within the correct procedure do both sides have their rights protected," he said. "If you make a decision that is properly made, it will not be overturned."

Exclusions were complicated by the need to consider the effect on other pupils as well as staff of failing to remove a child from a school, Mr Clarke said.

His association does not believe that appeals panels should always support the decision of a head to exclude. "It has to ask the questions ... to see whether the process was properly carried out," he added.

Jane Phillips, chairwoman of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said exclusions were a sensitive area.

Overturning a head's decision, she said, could upset the working relationship between him or her and governors and returning an excluded pupil to classes could also be unpopular with staff.

"If they do reverse a decision to exclude a pupil, governors will have to build bridges afterwards with the head as well as staff, because they are also concerned about and affected by pupils' behaviour," she said.

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