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Who loses under the law?

Teachers have the right not to teach violent pupils. Nigel de Gruchy explains why the NASUWT opposes appeal panels for pupil exclusions, which rose by 200 last year.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers opposed the establishment of exclusions appeal panels because they turn education questions into legal ones. With the emphasis in recent years on consumer rights rather than responsibilities, extending facilities to appeals in practice often gives dysfunctional parents the ability to insist that their disruptive offspring attend the school of their choosing.

I was astounded when the previous government announced that it was changing the law to require appeal panels to have regard to the interests of the whole school and not just the individual. I believed that they would have been doing that already as a matter of common sense. I fully support the right of parents to have their cases heard. That process rightly takes place within the province of the governing body.

Treating these matters in an increasingly litigious way leads to the operational needs of the school being relegated to second place. Teachers, heads and governors need support in exercising their disciplinary roles. I would go so far as to say that they need support even if, strictly speaking, they get it wrong. If so, they need to be put right quietly behind the scenes; told to make sure that they get it right in the future and sacked if they don't.

It is a little like having to accept the referee's decision. Slow motion replays can easily prove the referee wrong. But once you allow, indeed encourage, players to question the referee's decisions you are on a very slippery slope. The dangers are well illustrated by the increasingly corrupt and violent activities we witness both on and off so many different sports fields.

If teachers, heads and governers have come to the view, even wrongly, that a certain young person should no longer be in their school then it is simply not in the best interests of the pupil concerned to remain. A suitable alternative has to be found.

One of the problems with the "individual rights" and litigious approach is that it ignores the fact that other people also have rights. Other pupils have rights to a disruption-free education and a violence and bullying-free playground. Teachers and other staff also have common law rights to go about their business free from intimidation, and fear, not to mention actual physical assault. Employees also have statutory rights in respect of Health and Safety.

They also have the right to challenge unreasonable instructions from employers to teach violent young people who may have already inflicted physical assault on them. The best way to do that is through their unions, assuming the unions have the courage to support them.

When judges weigh up all these considerations it is not surprising that they often adopt a commonsense approach. What is the point in acceding to one individual's legal rights if you compromise others and plunge the whole school into turmoil?

Some people accuse the union of adopting macho tactics, seeking publicity and recruitment. To all those charges I reply "What utter nonsense!" The NASUWT has been offering full support over the past 30 years to members who have been faced with violent or disruptive young people. We offer that support because we see a fundamental role of the union to be the protection of its members and their interests. It is difficult to think of matters more important than physical safety at work and the ability to perform your job.

The NASUWT never initiates publicity by naming individual cases. We have always tried to highlight the general problem because it is a serious one and it needs to be addressed continuously. The spate of publicity in 1996 began when one family from Nottinghamshire rushed off to Central TV to sell their story. When challenged, the NASUWT was not going to be shy in coming forward to explain its position.

Because the NASUWT is the only union that consistently offers this kind of support to its members it is easily misinterpreted as serving a recruitment motive. It would be folly to conduct cases of this kind purely with recruitment motives. You would soon get into deep trouble.

Each case the NASUWT supports is carefully judged on its merits. We do have cases where support is refused or where members are told to adopt a different approach, or that they have not exhausted the procedures available within the school.

Accusations about publicity-seeking are equally ill-founded. If we merely wanted publicity we could secure lurid headlines virtually every day of the school year.

The recent Teacher Training Agency survey showed that 60 per cent of able young graduates are put off even considering teaching as a career because of the problems of pupil discipline. What does that say about the right of millions of pupils to the best possible education from the highest quality teaching force?

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