Recent controversies surrounding exclusions and new provisions relating to exclusion appeals which will appear in this week's Education Bill are certain to keep the emotive issue of disruptive pupils in the headlines.
Perhaps the perspective which appeals panel members have of the exclusion process will add to the debate. Committee members are not divorced from the reality of the problems facing schools. Many are retired teachers or educational administrators. Alongside them sits a lay member to bring the views of an outsider to the deliberations. Lay members cannot have had any paid involvement in education but a large proportion are experienced governors. Some panels also include a local councillor.
Any notion that those deciding to re-instate excluded pupils are do-gooders who think only of the miscreant is false. Panel members are very aware of the consequences of their decisions on the entire school community. Many are parents or grandparents so the situation of the other pupils is always in their mind. Appeal decisions are not taken lightly, yet there is frequent unanimity about the right course of action.
The procedure followed by panels is based upon a code of practice drawn up by the Council on Tribunals. The school, usually assisted by an officer from the local education authority, presents the reasons for excluding the pupil. Evidence is heard from the head and senior members of staff about the circumstances leading up to the exclusion. A governor usually attends. The pupil and their parents have the opportunity to question the school as does the panel. Members invariably question the school's representatives rigorously. Committee members know there are two sides to any question.
An exclusion is extremely serious and members rightly insist on proof that the pupil was responsible for the conduct in question, that other methods of tackling the situation were ineffective or inappropriate and that the school had followed legal requirements and any internal or LEA procedures.
Vigorous questioning of staff or governors does not imply that the committee is considering only the excluded pupil. Committees simply wish to ascertain the robustness of the school's evidence. The pupil and their parents then have the opportunity to present their version of events. A family may be assisted in this by focused questioning from the panel. If this seems one-sided it is worth noting that the school is helped with its case by the LEA while parents are generally unrepresented.
Whatever the outcome it is important that parents leave the appeal feeling that they have been able to articulate the issues which they consider relevant, not that they have been overwhelmed by the occasion. When parents have presented their case they are usually questioned thoroughly by the school and by the committee.
Current proposals that committees must balance the interests of the rest of the school against those of the excluded pupil are unlikely to affect many decisions as committees already consider this point. Members are realists and know that a decision to re-instate will send out messages to the rest of the pupils and may affect staff morale.
It is always easier to reach a decision when just one major incident was involved or an escalating pattern of seriousness is established. When the exclusion is founded on a series of incidents, none of which is appreciably more serious than others it is more difficult to judge the point at which the school can conclude that it has exhausted all other strategies and sanctions. Of the total number of exclusions annually only a fraction reach appeal and in the majority the panel support the school.
Under the new proposals it remains possible for the committee to conclude in favour of the pupil. This could happen, for example, if members were not convinced that the school had exhausted other options. Society must uphold the right of schools to operate in an orderly manner but in tightening the sanctions against bad behaviour it is worrying that there are no proposals for dealing with those who are excluded. No one can pretend that problem pupils forfeit their rights to education. Whether it is provided by increasing the staffing in mainstream schools to enable them to support all categories of pupils or whether pupil referral units are the answer is a debate which society must resolve quickly. It is essential that excluded pupils do not find themselves with time on their hands and no prospects of employment or self-betterment.
From the appeal committee perspective the proposed changes seem unlikely in themselves to solve the problems posed by disruptive pupils. They will only help to shift the difficulties out of schools and into the community. Surely it must be preferable to invest effort in retaining and helping problem pupils within the education system rather than the penal, health or welfare systems having to cope with the resulting problems?
Denise Bates chairs exclusion appeals for a local education authority. The views expressed are her own.