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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Ministers not using exclusion powers
Estelle Morris
Morris: Tough talk but no action yet

The education secretary has not yet used new powers she gave herself to tighten the rules on pupil exclusion appeals in England.

The government announced the new measures more than a year ago in response to continuing complaints from schools that independent appeal panels were reinstating pupils who had been expelled, even for violence.

The make-up of the local panels was to be changed so their members were mostly serving teachers - and they would no longer have to reinstate pupils on a technicality.

But this has still not been done, and the appeal panels remain unchanged.

The changes are not expected before next January.

Lengthy process

The proposals were first published for consultation in September 2001.

They became a section of the Education Bill, which became law in July.

This says the changes would be made - as often happens - by way of regulations to be published by the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.

These regulations have not appeared.

A spokesperson for her department said they were expected to be published in January.

Teaching members

Appeal panels have to have three or five members.

To make them more "school friendly", the proposal is that they should mostly be people with direct teaching experience - serving or former head teachers, deputy heads or senior teachers.

The appeal panel in Surrey - which sent back into school two boys expelled for making death threats to a teacher - is typical in having three members.

Surrey County Council is reluctant to say much about the panel, except that the three members are drawn from two groups - lay members and education experts, following the existing rules. They are volunteers.

Guidelines

The panels are duty bound to bear in mind the guidance published from time to time by the education secretary - but ultimately they are legally independent.

The most recent guidance says the secretary of state "would normally regard it as inappropriate" to reinstate a pupil who had been permanently excluded for

  • serious actual or threatened violence against another pupil or member of staff
  • sexual abuse
  • presenting "a significant risk to the health and safety of other pupils" by selling illegal drugs
  • persistent and malicious disruptive behaviour, including open defiance or refusal to conform with agreed school policies on, for example, discipline or dress code.
But the other issue the changes address is that of pupils being reinstated on a technicality - that some aspect of the lengthy expulsion process was not followed precisely, which might be for reasons beyond a school's control.

The government proposes instead that the panel should focus on the key issues - rather than on any procedural irregularity.

But again, this has not yet been done.

Balance of interests

And the government intends to make it a statutory requirement for an appeal panel to balance the interests of the excluded pupil against the interests of the whole school community.

This used to be the case - but the provision was repealed by a previous Labour education act - the thinking being that official guidance would suffice.

It has not, so ministers plan to make it mandatory again - but this also has not yet been done.

The decision of a panel is binding on everyone involved - the secretary of state does not have the power to intervene.

Final

It can be challenged only by judicial review in the high court - a process which either side can begin - or, for parents only, by a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Conservatives announced at a teachers' union conference in May 2001 that they would give schools the final word on expulsions - scrapping the right of appeal.

This was confirmed in their policy announcements this week.

The government takes the view that an appeal mechanism is necessary because otherwise parents would resort to the law - costing schools and education authorities huge sums in legal fees.


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See also:

04 May 01 | Education
16 Jan 02 | Education
16 Nov 01 | Education
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