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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Exclusion experts: Morris was wrong
law courts
Ministers have been warned by the courts

A parents' advice centre has said the education secretary was wrong to have intervened in the case of two boys expelled for threatening a teacher then reinstated on appeal.

The London-based Advisory Centre for Education says education ministers have been told off by a senior judge for "playing to a constituency" in announcing changes to exclusions guidance - but do not seem to have learned from that.

The centre says the independent local appeal panels should be strengthened by having a legally qualified chair, as is the case with other tribunals such as those dealing with immigration appeals.

"Even the parking meter adjudicator is legally qualified," a spokesperson said.

Qualifications

The centre gives legal advice to parents in matters such as exclusions - and among other things trains members of the appeal panels.

The panels are made up of three or five members with education expertise - teachers or governors, perhaps - and general experience, such as parents.

"We would argue that a decision as important as the permanent exclusion of a child from school should go through a properly qualified chair," said the centre's Ingrid Sutherland.

The appeal panels are back in the news because of two Surrey schoolboys expelled for making death threats against a teacher, then reinstated on appeal.

Success rate

The advisory centre - which also represents parents appearing before the panels - says they are no pushover.

The most recent figures, for 2000/01, show there were 9,210 permanent exclusions from schools in England.

Arising from those 1,095 appeals were lodged and 983 were actually heard.

Fewer than a third - 314 - were successful.

"Some panel members are not the best trained people in the world but they are not stupid - I think it's hard to get a case past them," Ms Sutherland said.

"The reason we think Estelle Morris has overstepped the mark is the principle that you keep the administrative and the judicial parts of the system separate."

Public announcement

In an earlier twist of the discipline and exclusions saga, the government tightened its guidelines to the appeal panels.

That was in the summer of 2000 - and first appeared in the form of a speech to the Professional Association of Teachers conference by the then education minister Jacqui Smith, accompanied by a departmental press release.

The courts have held that, for one thing, guidance is just that - it is not rules, and in fact appeal panels would be acting wrongly if they regarded it as binding.

In a Court of Appeal case earlier this year, Lord Justice Schiemann said the way guidance was issued was important.

'Political gain'

He said that in Jacqui Smith's speech to teachers it was "evident that the changes were in part intended to satisfy or mollify a particular constituency and a particular segment of public opinion".

If ministers used their powers "by announcing them in a manner or in a context suggestive of a search for political gain, the courts are likely to construe the changes cautiously".

"So that was a shot across their bows yet they still go and do it," Ms Sutherland said.

The Council of Tribunals - which reviews the constitution and working of tribunals - was concerned that the first it knew about the changes was a press report of the minister's speech.

See also:

14 Feb 03 | Education
11 Oct 02 | Education
10 Oct 02 | Education
04 May 01 | Education
16 Jan 02 | Mike Baker
16 Nov 01 | Education
Internet links:


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