James Montgomery finds school discipline coming to the fore in public debate after one high-profile case. Teachers at a Nottingham school opposed to the readmission of a disruptive pupil were due to go on strike today.
As The TES went to press, no agreement had been reached between their union and the education authority over 13-year-old Richard Wilding's return to Glaisdale comprehensive.
Nottingham education authority had hoped to avert industrial action after drawing up a package of measures to provide special needs teaching while keeping the boy on the school roll. The package, agreed by Richard's parents, included individual tuition in school, and lessons at a special referral unit.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said talks had been positive and more were planned. But he insisted the strike would proceed unless concessions were offered.
Explaining his members' objections, he added: "Isolation does not work in practice, and the medium-term aim is still to fully integrate the pupil in mainstream classes."
The dispute, which arose after an appeals committee overturned the decision of the headteacher, David Higgins - backed by school governors and the local education authority - to exclude Richard because of his violent behaviour, has highlighted concern about discipline and the exclusion system.
Under the 1986 Education Act, the headteacher of an LEA school must inform the governors, the education authority and the pupil's parents of any exclusion order.
The parents have 15 school days from notification to lodge an appeal in writing with the governors.
If that fails, they can ask the local education authority to reconsider the school's decision. The LEA may order immediate reinstatement, reinstatement at a fixed date, or uphold the original exclusion.
If the authority upholds the exclusion, the parents have recourse to an independent appeals committee, whose ruling is binding and can only be overturned by judicial review. If the authority overrules the school, the governors can also appeal to the committee.
The appeals committee is made up of three, five or seven members, including one lay person and members of the local authority.
While the Nottingham case is the first to have gone as far as a strike ballot, the National Association of Head Teachers is aware of several schools where teachers have threatened action over unruly pupils.
According to Chris Purser, NAHT assistant secretary (professional advice), such cases raise a possible conflict with health and safety legislation. "It is an intriguing situation. If a headteacher is saying a child should not be returned to school, it is because that child will be a threat to the safety of others," Mr Purser said.
"If the LEA insists the child is allowed back in, then we can only advise headteachers to do what they are instructed. Then if there is a major problem which comes to court under health and safety legislation, the LEA is responsible."
Alan Parker, education adviser to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, believes the Government's insistence on parental choice is making the appeals process damagingly adversarial.
"The competition between schools and the pressure of league tables sets up the rights of the individual against the rights of other pupils in the school, and that is why the problem is getting worse," he added.