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Whose rights?

What seems most extraordinary about the fuss over the attempted expulsion of a 13-year-old from his school in Nottingham this week is that, with permanent exclusions now running at well over 10,000 a year in England, this one among so many should have hit the headlines.

Was it the spectacle of working-class parents able and willing publicly to stand up for their child's rights which caught so much attention or the supposed contrariness of the independent tribunal's decision? Was it the the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' threat of industrial action if the boy returned that was so provocative? Or the fact that Gillian Shephard used the launch of her party's local government election campaign to rub the Labour council's nose in the legal impasse?

Schools will no doubt hope such attention represents some belated realisation that keeping peace and good order is getting very much more difficult, given the behaviour and attitudes to authority of some children - and some parents; the sharp increase in expulsion in recent years is not solely the result of image-conscious heads selecting by exclusion.

Some have seized on this brouhaha to advance demands for the rules on exclusions to be revised once again. There may be a case for reviewing them. The present procedures were established 10 years ago, before major reforms made heads and governors more responsible for managing staff. The present arrangements largely resulted from the refusal in 1985 of NASUWT members to teach five pupils excluded from Poundswick school in Manchester for offensive graffiti. Since then, a head's decision to exclude has had to be confirmed first by the governors and then the local authority in an LEA school. Either the parents or the governors can appeal to an independent panel if they disagree with the authority's decision.

So what, if any, are the conclusions that can be drawn from the Glaisdale incident? One is that, whatever the alleged misdeeds that formed the basis of this boy's trial in the press, it is possible that the independent appeals panel did not hear the full story since neither the headteacher nor the chair of governors attended its hearing. There is a practical lesson here for schools since the panel - which in effect can retry the case - must make up its mind on the basis of the evidence put before it. The parents' appeal in this case was technically against the authority's refusal to overturn the school's exclusion decision. But it is the school which in most cases has to deal with the consequences if the panel finds for the parents.

So heads and governors need to brush up their procedures for representation at appeals and tribunals as parents become increasingly litigious. This is doubly pressing if teachers are not prepared to accept appeals as final. Again, it was the NASUWT which threatened strike action at Bishop Llandaff school in Wales in 1991 when the governors' appeal panel reinstated three boys after a sexual assault.

It is hard to see how the call of some heads for a return of indefinite exclusions might have helped in any of these cases except by creating a convenient state of limbo. But it is hard to see that the present alternatives of short-term and permanent exclusions are proving satisfactory either.

It is scandalous that the Department for Education and Employment only began this year to collect systematic details of exclusions. And who knows whether local authorities and appeals panels are properly balancing the rights of all pupils against the needs of the violent and disruptive, when such appeals are heard in private?

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