Antidote to the poison chalice;Coping with...Exclusions;Briefing;Governors

19th June 1998 at 01:00
In the first of an occasional series Joan Sallis offers advice on coping with a difficult situation

I love almost everything about being a governor of a familiar local school. The only exception is the poisoned chalice, the invitation to serve on a panel to hear parents pleading against the exclusion of their child.

We have few permanent exclusions, and the staff do their best to avert them, but over the years all governors have had involvement in a few. It also seems to be getting more common for parents to appeal against a short or fixed-term exclusion.

Whatever a child has done, it is always an awesome thing to bring about an interruption in or even an end to schooling, the more so as the pupil rarely recognises the seriousness of events at the time. Many governors tell me how often the process brings you a glimpse into a childhood so lacking in all the things we took for granted, for ourselves and our children, that they don't marvel that the miscreant before them behaved badly, but that he or she didn't behave worse. Homes without joy or order, bedtimes or mealtimes, homes where violence is normal; saddest, perhaps, homes where a browbeaten mother is actually frightened of her adolescent and has given up any pretence of control.

When governors read the catalogue of misdeeds which have brought the pupil to the end of the road, they are often appalled. If they believe that all available strategies have failed and that the situation is beyond repair, they will uphold the school. Yet I know many hate doing so, and try to ease their pain by repeating how many other children's studies are disrupted or safety threatened by the excluded pupil, by reminding themselves that there is probably no hope of a successful outcome from "one more chance", and persuading themselves that some pupils do come to their senses when they are able to make a fresh start.

The pain comes from the evidence that many of these children have learning difficulties or are damaged and unhappy human beings for whom there should be some more suitable provision, and that although the school has done its best its options have been very restricted.

In the rare case where a governors' appeal panel thinks the school has over-reacted and contemplates reinstatement, they are in no doubt that the staff see this as a betrayal, and that they exhaust in a moment all the goodwill they have so patiently earned in their relationship with teachers. Often governors tell me that whether or not they uphold the decision they go home to a sleepless night. In a few well-publicised cases a decision not to uphold the school has even caused teachers to refuse to teach the child.

The law: a moving target

There never seems to be a right time to write about exclusions, because governments find the issue very difficult and meanwhile we work on shifting sands. We still do not know whether the provisions in the School Standards and Framework Bill will survive as drafted, and even when they are on the statute book we may still be awaiting the new regulations which flesh them out. We work on the assumption that the local authority's power to overturn a decision is to cease, and that the limit on fixed-term exclusions is 45 school days in a school year.

The new legislation as drafted will make governors' role even more painful, with no further stage of LEA jurisdiction before recourse to an independent tribunal. Governors know how few options schools have.

Places in referral units are woefully inadequate, and waiting lists to see an educational psychologist too long. Schools cannot afford to establish satisfactory withdrawal groups themselves and are often prevented by tight budgets from running enough activities to absorb dangerous energies, reducing class sizes or employing expert therapists. All solutions consume a lot of skilled people - and money.

What can governors do?

Governors can play a constructive role. Parents may not fully understand the significance of the legal limit of short-term exclusion, which when reached gives the school no option but to exclude permanently if the child seriously re-offends. They may think the school is just bluffing and that this is not different from other warnings. I think it might be helpful for governors to be present at a meeting held with parents and relevant staff when this point is reached, emphasising that the law does tie schools' hands at the legal limit of fixed term exclusions.

I worry about the inequality suffered by a child whose parents can't or won't give effective support when permanent exclusion is proposed. Surely there should be someone to dig out and present the evidence in the child's favour just as good and capable parents would - the non-monetary equivalent of legal aid.

Governors need to check that all the school's actions will pass the test of a tribunal, where understanding of the teacher's problems may be less. This means ensuring that every effort has been made to gain the parents' co-operation. A series of formal letters may not be considered enough.

They can make sure that the case against the child does not seem just "cumulative". Teachers know and governors know that persistent defiance of authority and constant low-level disruption, perhaps for years, can be more damaging than the single outrageous act, yet it may be the latter that the tribunal will look for. It should never appear that the child was permanently excluded for being impertinent to a teacher or coming to class without a pen and then stopping others working, even if it was the hundredth time. Often the reality is that it has become impossible to teach, or for the school to guarantee the safety of, the pupil or others, and staff shouldn't forget to spell this out.

Governors can also satisfy themselves that the school has tried every strategy at its disposal to solve the problems, and especially that if there is a special needs element their record of response is blameless.

Finally, the presentation of the child's misdemeanours must be objective, factual, unemotional and backed by sound evidence.

And in conclusion...

It is obvious what we must do collectively. We must go on pointing out that strains in schools have increased while options to deal with difficult pupils have shrunk. We must impress on anyone who will listen that punitive measures by governments - or schools - will not alone bring lasting solutions.

* Agenda returns next week.

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