Iain Nisbet

The head of education law at Govan Law Centre makes a case for school trips and discusses the most common issues that arise in his work with teachers, as well as his most exciting case. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by James Glossop

What made you want to be a lawyer?

I suppose all those court-room dramas on TV had a certain appeal.

What does your work entail?

Representing parents and pupils in legal cases would be the most high- profile aspect of it. We provide a lot of telephone advice to parents, teachers and other advisers. We do a lot of training for schools, authorities, parents' groups, and increasingly we do quite a lot of policy work in the field of education.

What are the biggest issues?

Typically, it would tend to be either a placement issue or an issue about the type or amount of support available for a child, or increasingly issues around discrimination.

Have the cases in that field changed?

The big recent change has been, as of September, the reasonable adjustments duty that applies to schools, which now includes a duty to provide auxiliary aids and services. That means the provision of extra staff and extra resources, where required, to avoid disadvantage to disabled pupils.

Is that mostly about school trips?

It is actually a lot broader than that, but the additional support for learning legislation covers most things that would otherwise be covered by that duty in the context of the day-to-day life of the school. And where schools struggle sometimes is where there is a break to that routine. So school trips and extracurricular activities tend to be where the cases arise.

Does it put schools off doing trips?

I don't think it ought to. There has been a suggestion that things like health and safety concerns put schools off running trips, but there is no good reason for that to be the case.

Last year, at the Scottish Learning Festival, you did a presentation for teachers on how not to be sued. What is the most significant pitfall?

Planning ahead. The majority of phone calls we get are from parents concerned about discrimination and other legal issues that could have been avoided by good communication and planning.

What are the most common issues that arise in your work with teachers?

It varies. Most of the training we do tends to be at senior management level. The key things people are concerned about are additional support for learning, the Equality Act, the Children and Young People Bill and how they are going to impact on schools.

In the 13 years you have been doing this, how have the issues you are dealing with on a daily basis changed?

The law has certainly changed and the Scottish Parliament being in place has increased the pace of that change. But actually, the issues people are phoning about are largely static. People are concerned about their children. They want their children to attend what they see as the most suitable school. They want to make sure their children are happy and well looked after when they are at school and that they are getting the right support.

There is a movement for exclusions to be abolished - what is your view on that?

We wouldn't advocate that they are done away with altogether. There is a real issue about parents of children with disabilities just being told to take the kids home; these are informal exclusions that never show up on anyone's record. You can even come across extreme examples where a kid is getting maybe three half-days of school in any given week. There is also a real issue around the provision of alternative education. And there has to be a question mark over what the point of an exclusion is if you are effectively rewarding their behaviour. It is something we are looking at from a policy point of view.

One issue is that often the children who most need someone to advocate for them do not have the kind of parents who would come to you.

Absolutely. We try to address that by being a bit more proactive in terms of groups of children, including the looked-after, young carers and so on. We recently did some policy work in relation to looked-after children. We made a Freedom of Information request to local authorities and presented that evidence to the Scottish government. So we might not be able to represent individual children because they are less likely to present themselves, but there is work we can do in terms of trying to have a broader strategic impact working with other organisations and so on.

Looking back, what has been the most exciting case you have been involved in?

There was a case that made the front of TESS way back when we started out. The local authority had excluded a child on a temporary basis and then, without following any process, removed them from the roll and gave them another school to attend. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of using the law to make sure that children's rights are properly upheld, and that led to quite a wholesale change in that council's policy on exclusions. Those are the most exciting types of cases, where there is a broader impact.


Born: Swansea, 1975

Education: Rhu Primary School; Hermitage Academy, Helensburgh; University of Strathclyde

Career: Money adviser at Drumchapel Law and Money Advice Centre; partner and head of education law at Govan Law Centre.

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