Boy's return shuts school

1st November 1996 at 00:00
The latest skirmishes in the teacher and parent conflict over disruptive pupils have exposed doubts over who has authority to intervene.

The crisis over a disruptive pupil at Manton junior school in Worksop, Nottinghamshire highlights an increasingly acute question - who runs the schools?

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard seemed in no doubt when she castigated Nottinghamshire County Council for failing to sort out the row over 10-year-old Matthew Wilson, the boy the unions refuse to teach, and suggested Fred Riddell, the authority's education chairman, should step in.

But Mr Riddell says that he is powerless to act because of legislation passed by Mrs Shephard's Conservative predecessors.

"People are asking why don't I go in and knock heads together, but we have been written out of the script," he says.

"The law doesn't give the local authority any role at all. Legally, this dispute is nothing to do with me. It's between the head and the governors. "

On Wednesday, as The TES went to press, exhaustive talks were continuing between the local education authority, school governors and union leaders in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Headteacher Bill Skelley closed the school on health and safety grounds and members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, then went on strike.

Eileen Bennett, chair of the governing body, blamed the teachers and the local authority for the dispute.

"It's an impasse," she said. "We've done everything we could but we were led into a blind alley when we agreed that Matthew could be taught one-to-one for six weeks.

"We thought the teachers and unions would go away and sort it out but they haven't done a thing. We said at the beginning that there would be no more money after six weeks and that is what has happened."

The latest crisis was triggered by the governors' refusal to continue paying for individual tuition costing Pounds 14,000 a year, the headteacher Bill Skelley's refusal to teach the boy himself, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers refusal to accept Matthew back into class.

It is the latest dispute over unruly pupils. Last year 12-year-old Graham Cram was excluded from his school in South Tyneside after allegedly kicking a teacher and threatening to break his legs. Teachers refused to teach him but agreed to him being taught separately.

This spring 13-year-old Richard Wilding, also from Nottinghamshire, was excluded after staff refused to teach him after he was alleged to have threatened a teacher with a chair. His parents appealed and he was given special teaching at home and in a unit near his school.

Then 13-year-old Sarah Taylor was excluded from The Ridings school in Halifax, after allegedly pushing a teacher and general violent behaviour.

The decision was overturned by the local authority appeals panel but 31 teachers threatened to walk out if she was sent back. The authority agreed to find her another school. The school's problems continued, however, and have now blown up again with a full-scale strike threat over 60 pupils staff say are unteachable.

The problems at Manton, however, may not be as hopeless as some of the participants seem to believe.

Walter Ulrich of the National Association of Governors and Managers says that the local authority does have the right to intervene if it believes the governors are not running the school properly.

They can take back powers delegated under the local management of schools scheme which would give them overall control of finances and staffing.

Mrs Shephard, equally, could intervene if she felt the governors had failed to consider all the issues involved in overturning the head's decision to exclude the boy.

"There are procedures open to the local authority to make sure the governors are running the school properly. And it would be open to the Secretary of State in certain circumstances to intervene if she felt there had been unreasonable action.

"But these procedures take time to operate and their effectiveness depends on the merits of the case and the burden of proof, and they take time to implement."

Meanwhile, the unions are adamant that they have the right to refuse to teach unruly pupils. Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary, said his members were adamant they would not teach Matthew Wilson.

"They are so unhappy about having to teach this boy that they are prepared to go to the bitter end," he said, "even if it means losing their jobs."

Meanwhile, the boy's mother, who has resisted pressure to agree to Matthew being sent to another school, has plans to take court action.

There are no signs that the furore over disruptive pupils will die down. The National Association of Head Teachers reports the number of inquiries over discipline problems has risen by up to 50 per cent in the past two years.

At the heart of the problem, says Gareth James, head of the union's professional advice department, is the huge rise in the number of permanent exclusions, now standing at around 11,000 a year, caused in part by the need for schools to maintain their numbers and image under the local management of schools funding arrangements.

Coupled with the change in the law under the 1986 Education Act which set up the current procedures for exclusions, including an independent appeals panel with the power to send a pupil back to a school against the decision of the head, the scene is set for conflict.

Some kind of peace process is clearly needed. Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors Council, said: "At the heart of this is a school that has got to carry on functioning and a child who needs educating.

"There has been a lot of jumping on the bandwagon in this dispute, but we've now got a very difficult situation which can only be resolved by people sitting down and talking."

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