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Friday, 14 February, 2003, 18:20 GMT
Q&A: Exclusion appeals
The power of schools to expel disruptive pupils is back in the spotlight.

A school in Surrey kicked out two boys who had made death threats against a teacher.

The parents went to the independent local exclusions appeal panel - and won.

We've heard this kind of thing before - I thought the government had put a stop to it?

There is, as they say, a history to this issue.

Spool back a few years. The prime minister's Social Exclusion Unit said society was suffering because too many kids were being expelled - they did not get a proper education and they drifted into a life of crime.

The then education secretary, David Blunkett, produced a target: to cut the number of exclusions by a third - by September 2002, ironically.

He published a now notorious circular - known as Circular 10/99 - which head teachers said curbed their powers to get rid of disruptive pupils, at a time when the problem was growing.

They said local authority appeal panels were ordering the reinstatement of pupils excluded permanently from school.

In June 2000, Blunkett told a head teachers' union conference he would consider changing his guidance to make it clear to appeal panels that it was inappropriate for youngsters who had used "violence or the severe threat of violence" to be "thrust back into the same school".

He duly did so. The complaints continued.

In May 2001 Blunkett scrapped his target - as the exclusion figures for 1999/2000 showed that it had all but been met already.

They went up 11% the following year - but the complaints continued, with teachers saying pupil disruption was one of the main factors preventing greater recruitment and damaging morale.

Graph showing exclusions trend

Targets apart, the problem seems to be these appeal panels - who are they?

They were set up by the Conservatives - who now say they want them scrapped.

The government says you have to have them otherwise the only recourse for parents of expelled children would be to the courts and that would cost schools and education authorities a fortune, defending their expulsion decisions.

Each education authority has a legal duty to set up an appeal panel, and to provide a clerk for it, but they are otherwise totally independent - they are not "the local authority's appeal panel".

The members - all volunteers who just get expenses - are either people with experience of education or lay members, including parents with children at a school in the area.

That said, they're pretty secretive - we're not told who the members are, they meet behind closed doors and their deliberations are not published.

Researchers in the late 90s found that 96% of panel members were white - so ethnic minorities were under-represented, whereas they are disproportionately likely to be excluded from school.

Just over half the panel members were aged over 60 and one in eight was 71 or older.

A third were untrained for their role.

And they seem to back parents a lot.

Actually, no.

The most recent figures show that 983 appeals were heard, arising from 9,210 permanent exclusions - of which 314, fewer than a third, were successful. Put another way, just 3.4% of all the exclusions were overturned on appeal.

Research shows parents find the hearings daunting; in two thirds of cases they have no representation.

The panels often displayed an unconscious bias towards schools.

When they meet, panel members and representatives from schools and education authorities are often on first name terms and "engage in jovial banter" - which undermines parents' confidence in their impartiality.

A teacher told me parents could be legally represented, but not the school.

Not true.

The first appeal against an exclusion is actually internal, to a discipline committee which each school governing body must have.

So when it comes to the independent appeal panel, the appeal is actually against the decision of the governing body's discipline committee.

And the discipline committee can have a representative at the appeal hearing just as the parents can, including a lawyer if it wants.

Incidentally pupils can't, unless they are aged over 18. In fact they can't appeal - only their parents can.

What's this the government said about changing them?

In September 2001 - as part of its proposals for a new Education Bill - the government said it would change the appeal panels.

  • to make them more "school friendly", they should mostly be people with direct teaching experience
  • they should focus on the key issues - rather than taking account of any technical irregularity in the exclusion process
  • they should balance the interests of the excluded pupil against the interests of the whole school community.
These changes became law in July this year - sort of.

They were in the format you often get in acts of parliament - giving the education secretary (Estelle Morris by this time) the power to make regulations.

She has not yet done that - we're promised the changes next January.

But in this case she had intervened to get the boys booted out, right?

She might have intervened - by shouting at the local education authority to do something - but she can't actually do anything about it.

She might have the weight of public opinion on her side - and certainly of teachers' - but not the law.

Remember, the appeal panels are independent.

What they say is legally binding on both parties.

The only appeal is by way of judicial review in the High Court - although aggrieved parents can also complain to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Whether the boys stay or go is up to them and their parents.

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See also:

11 Oct 02 | Education
10 Oct 02 | Education
04 May 01 | Education
16 Jan 02 | Education
16 Jan 02 | Mike Baker
16 Nov 01 | Education
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