Exclusion orders on unruly pupils are being challenged by independent panels with the result that heads are calling for their work to be re-examined. Growing numbers of exclusions are being overturned against the wishes of heads and governors, it is alleged, and both the headteachers' organisations are calling for radical changes in the make-up and terms of reference of the independent appeals panels.
Set up 10 years ago to provide a last avenue of appeal, these panels have the powers to overturn local authority decisions to confirm or reject governors' confirmation of heads' exclusion decisions, or in the case of voluntary-aided and grant-maintained schools, to overrule the governors.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, has asked Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard to consider urgently: * Requiring the chairman of such panels to be legally qualified in line with a recommendation already made by the Council of Tribunals.
* Changing the make-up of panels so they are truly independent.
* Requiring panels to give reasons for their decisions.
* Requiring panels to consider not just the needs of the individual pupil concerned but also those of other pupils and staff at the school.
"It is vital that the educational needs of the many, let alone the credibility of the school's disciplinary code, be regarded with the same importance as the individual pupil's circumstances," says Mr Hart.
In addition he wants restoration of heads' power to exclude indefinitely, removal of parental right to forbid detention, and schools to be given the right to refuse pupils excluded from other schools.
Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the union at the centre of several rows over permanent exclusions overturned on appeal, questions the need for such panels when schools are supposed to be self-governing. "What price local management now?" he asked in a letter to The Times last week.
"The Government argues that governing bodies are best placed to decide school policy on admissions; yet at the same time it believes these bodies cannot be relied upon to make sensible decisions on exclusions."
Mr de Gruchy also questions the independence of appeals panels and the good faith of local authorities which have to confirm or reject the schools' decision to exclude permanently. "Appeals panels are established solely by the local education authority. Membership and proceedings remain confidential. The local authority has a vested interest in forcing a disruptive pupil back into mainstream school in order to avoid more expensive special educational provision."
But the National Association of Governors and Managers is far from convinced of the need for change. "There is no reason to suppose appeals panels are acting in a perverse fashion," says Walter Ulrich, NAGM's information officer.
Appeals committees' remit was open; they could already adjudicate between the needs of all pupils and those of individuals though it was questionable whether they should be rehearing cases rather than ensuring fair procedures had been followed, said Mr Ulrich.
Though the decisions of exclusion appeals panels are meant to be final, they can be challenged or pre-empted in the courts (see below and right) .