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I declare my interest as a former trustee and council member of Save the Children. This amendment has been suggested to me by that charity. It is also supported by a number of other similar organisations.
The amendment is concerned with the important matter of the exclusion of children from school. In August 2004, Save the Children commissioned a research project specifically aimed at gathering information from children and young people on their experience of the exclusion process. The objectives were to determine what experiences children and young people have of the exclusion process; to elicit the extent to which children and young people are involved in the exclusion process and whether their involvement is systemic or sporadic and inconsistent; to assess whether children and young people are given the necessary information and support to facilitate their full involvement in the process; to determine whether there are any possible or lasting benefits to children and young people being involved in the process; and to assess whether there are any negative effects of not being involved.
Face-to-face individual interviews took place with a number of children and young people who had recently been excluded either permanently or on a fixed time-period exclusion. The amendment before the Committee today is the result of that research.
The findings indicated that the exclusion process is associated with considerable obfuscation, misunderstanding and frustration by many young people. Many who participated in the research appeared confused about what was involved in the exclusion process, the sequence of events and the specific purpose of any meetings held. They regarded themselves as having no influence or control over the exclusion process. It was something that happened around them and about them, but did not directly involve them other than incidentally. Not surprisingly, most of the respondents in the research had a predominantly negative view of the overall merits and value of the process. They often failed to differentiate between initial meetings to consider possible exclusion, disciplinary committee meetings and appeal meetings. Few seemed to be aware of, or understand, the appeal procedures linked to permanent exclusions.
The extent to which young people were involved in the process of their exclusion varied considerably across the research sample. At one end of the spectrum were respondents who often attended meetings and presented their view on what had happened; at the other end were respondents who never went to meetings to do with exclusion and therefore had never given their side of the story. Some respondents expressed anger and frustration at not having been asked to give their side of the story. They suffered a sense not only of disempowerment but also the feeling that justice had not been done because teachers were making exclusion decisions without knowing all the full facts of the case. In several cases it was thought that having the opportunity to speak could well have changed the exclusion decision.
Young people proposed a number of useful suggestions as to how the exclusion process might be improved: first, that discussions focus on what had happened during the specific incident concerned rather than on the young person's general character and behaviour; secondly, that all young people be treated equally; thirdly, that teachers spend more time gathering evidence from all those involved; fourthly, that a young person accused be given a chance to call witnesses of their choice to attend exclusion meetings; and, finally, that young people be allowed to hear the evidence against them before being given the opportunity to present their side of the case.
There is no doubt from the case studies cited in the research that young people excluded are concerned that their education will be disrupted, and this could well cause problems for them in later life. As one of them put it, "You go thick if you're off school too long". There seems to be an expectation that all parents and carers have the information and capacity to present the best interests of their child throughout the process. However, the research undertaken shows that that is not always the case. One young man explained that he had wanted to appeal against what he felt was an unfair exclusion but his mother felt that it would take too much time. He told researchers, "My mum didn't want me to have an appeal to go back as it would take too long. I wanted to go back, but my mum says it takes too long so leave it. I would have told them it wasn't me and that they should not have excluded me in the first place".
Current statutory guidance in England does not enforce statutory involvement of a child in the exclusion process. Not all schools make provision for children and young people to make representations at disciplinary meetings or appeal hearings. Furthermore, the current guidance does not cover the provision of relevant information to children and young people regarding their exclusion. As a result children are not always in a position to make representation at exclusion hearings, even if they are allowed to attend. Research has shown that children most likely to be excluded already suffer reduced life chances.
"States Parties shall assure, to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child".
Legislative change would ensure that the Government are meeting their obligations under Article 12 by establishing a legal standard that requires schools to listen to children and young people in matters of concern to them in the exclusions process. Fully involving children and young people in the process and supporting them to make representations would help to ensure that they take responsibility for their actions and do not become disengaged from education altogether.
Research has shown that many excluded young people appreciate the chance to be able to tell their side of the story and are only too well aware of the problems that they may face in later life if their education is disrupted by exclusion.
In Scotland and Wales, legislative changes have been introduced that give children the rights sought in this amendment. In order to ensure that all children have the right to access appropriate information and have their voices heard in the school exclusion process, it is crucial that statutory guidance be strengthened through legislative change. I hope that the Government will view this amendment favourably. I beg to move.