Why the right to appeal must stay

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Independent appeal panels have been criticised recently, and there have been calls for their abolition. But for us, they provided a vital safety net when all channels of communication with my son's headteacher broke down.

Joseph is now in Year 8 at an "outstanding" - according to the Office for Standards in Education - grammar school. He is happy, and coping so well with the workload that he is studying Russian in his free time. His teachers describe him as keen, enthusiastic and eager to learn. Yet nobody at his old school would recognise this portrait.

When I applied in April 1995 for Joseph to jump Year 7 and sit the 12-plus early, his lack of motivation and appalling work habits had been apparent for some 18 months. There were clues to his ability, like his 140-plus verbal reasoning score in Year 5, but his "excellent" middle school ignored them.

I tried hard to resolve the situation with his headteacher, who said he had lots of children infinitely brighter than Joseph. I tried the local education authority, which advised me to find another middle school and then refused him a place because it was full.

The LEA eventually wrote to Joseph's headteacher for a 12-plus recommendation and, purely based on that report, rejected my application to jump a year, saying Joseph did not fulful its three criteria for early transfer to secondary school. The criteria were outstanding academic ability; exceptional physical and emotional maturity; having worked with older children for some time.

I could appeal within two weeks, but had no idea what I was appealing against, since I was refused access to the head's report.

The letter of appeal, prepared by a friend, a retired deputy head who had agreed to represent me on the day, argued that Joseph met criteria one and two but not three, because his headteacher had failed to identify and cater for his high ability. We strengthened our submission with a psychological report, which revealed that Joseph was in the top 0.2 per cent of the ability range and had a mental age of 16.

Days before the appeal, the solicitor's department sent us copies of all documents submitted, including the head's report, and I found that the LEA had settled my son's future on a flimsy 192-word document.

The central paragraphs read: "Joseph is undoubtedly a very bright boy - but not the brightest in his year group. He does not exhibit the work ethic of the other children. Despite being given every opportunity, his work is not of the highest standards shown by others and he does not work of his own accord, despite excellent stimulation.

"This poor work ethic is a reflection of his immaturityIhe enjoys 'scoring points' rather than having a conversation."

The headteacher and myself agreed on the effect - Joseph's work ethic was appalling. As for the cause, he imputed immaturity; I blamed lack of stimulation.

The appeal was heard just before the end of the summer term. Unexpectedly, Joseph's head was present, on the side of the LEA.

I cannot praise the committee enough. The members remained unwaveringly patient and courteous throughout, asked the headteacher pointed questions about his provision for gifted children, and skilfully examined the possibility I might be a pushy mum seeking personal glory.

Common sense prevailed, and the appeal committee over-ruled the LEA.

Claude Shields is a parent in the Home Counties. A fuller account of the appeal, and the events leading up to it, is available from Claude Shields co The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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