New Clause 12 - Abolition of Independent Appeals Panels

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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‘Subsections (3)(c), (4)(a), (6) and (7) of section 52 of the Education Act 2002 (c. 32) (panels to hear appeals against decisions not to reinstate pupils) shall cease to have effect.’. —[Angela Watkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is about the abolition of independent appeals panels. The decision on appeals against exclusion should remain with the head teacher and governors of a school and should not be subject to being overturned by independent appeals panels. Head teachers exclude only as a last resort, when all their other disciplinary and pastoral procedures have been tried and have failed. Every school in my constituency has a pastoral unit and those units go to extraordinary lengths to turn round children who are disaffected or disruptive in one way or another.

On the rare occasions when exclusion arises, it is only as a result of all other means failing. The head teachers will feel that they have failed; they do not like taking such action. However, when things get to an extreme state and the school feels that it can no longer contain a pupil for whatever reason, once it has made the decision, that decision should not be subject to being overturned by an independent appeals panel that has not been present in the school and is not familiar with the train of events that have led up to the exclusion, which is usually very long. We want the head teacher to have the autonomy, in consultation with his governors, to make a final exclusion order. That is the purpose of the new clause.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I have some sympathy with the general noises that the hon. Lady is making, but she is making the mistake that the Conservatives habitually make: they do not distinguish between how a system works or may work and the principle behind it. The principle behind this system is based on the sound argument that, although head teachers are undoubtedly wise, competent individuals who get most things right, they do not invariably get everything right. Although most head teachers, as she said, expel or exclude pupils for good reasons that no rational person would object to, we cannot rule out the possibility that, in certain circumstances, a head teacher may not do that and may not behave as other head teachers might behave in similar circumstances.

Equally, there may be appeals panels that are untutored, know little about the realities of schools and simply fall for any gullible line spun by any dissenting pupil, but that is not necessarily the case, and it ought not to be. Appeals panels should be appropriately trained and experienced so that they can call the judgments correctly. If we cannot exclude the possibility that a head teacher may be wrong, we must consider that the system proposed by the Conservatives would allow no opportunity for redress or appeal when a headmaster has acted harshly. Although I have encountered lots of complaints about badly behaved children, I have also occasionally seen parents take up issues with respect to how their child has been treated. They are not necessarily parents who are antagonistic towards the objectives of the school.

So, a general prima facie case can be made for having an appeals panel. If there are problems with the working of the panel, they should be studied and the Department for Education and Skills should do its best to get things right so that we do not have all the outcomes that the Conservatives allege that appeals panels are traditionally having, and that they may in some circumstances have. I am not confronted with the empirical evidence at the moment.

When this issue was argued about on the Floor of the House, I think it was a Labour Member who made the point that, if there were not an appeals panel, that would not prevent a case from being taken to court involving the behaviour of a headmaster who it was thought had not been fair. The answer from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) went something like this: “Oh yes, there may be appeals to the courts. If we do not have an appeals   system, perhaps that will be the result. But we will not grant legal aid in those circumstances.” According to that logic, if an injustice is done against a child who comes from a well-heeled family, something can be done, but if an injustice is done against a child whose family do not have any resources, justice will not be done. It is simply not satisfactory to feel comfortable with that outcome. If that is the answer to the problem, the policy as advocated seems deeply flawed. The hon. Lady must distinguish between the feelings she has about the workings of the system and the principle of having such a system in the first place.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I want to add to what the hon. Member for Southport, my next-door neighbour, has said. The appeals panels make some potty decisions from time to time, and that is almost inevitable, but their one advantage is that they can see across an area the different thresholds for exclusion that schools have. I have seven large secondary schools in my constituency. They are all very good and I have no quarrels with any of them, but they have different tolerance thresholds for what they judge to be punishable by exclusion. It is not fair that a school with a good, cosy, middle-class intake can exclude a pupil for an action that a school a few miles away with a tough, rough intake would take in its stride without even considering exclusion. When those latter schools exclude, it is the absolute last resort, and they are seldom kicked back on appeal.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

Would it surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that one of my secondary schools, which is in a nice, cosy, leafy, middle-class area and is high-achieving, has a very good record of accepting excluded pupils from the less advantaged area where the least popular school in the constituency is situated? It does very well with them. Often, an excluded pupil does much better with a change of surroundings, circumstances and friends. That is sometimes the answer.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

That does not surprise me. What worried me about the hon. Lady’s remarks was that she said that head teachers in general would not make catastrophic errors. Some heads do. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) told me a story about a school he knows where the head excluded a child for throwing the hat of another child out the window. The governors upheld the exclusion, although it was later turned down on appeal. That is perhaps an extreme example, but such reasons for exclusion are nonsense. Some heads will exclude. The pressure on heads from their school community and governors is sometimes quite strong. Sometimes the activities that pupils get up to that are not pleasant but are judged worthy of exclusion would not warrant such action in my experience of schools.

The schools exclusion appeals system is a good safeguard against the nonsense perpetrated by a small minority of head teachers, but perhaps any head teacher, however good, is liable to make a mistake. I am married to a head teacher. However good they are,   they make mistakes. In conclusion, I agree with the hon. Member for Southport. He is absolutely right, and we would be foolish to agree to the new clause.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

The hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire made strong cases as to why we should oppose the new clause, but I would like to place the Government’s position on the record.

The subsections of the Education Act 2002 to which the new clause refers provide for the setting up of an independent appeals panel to hear appeals against the exclusion of pupils from schools and pupil referral units. The Government believe unconditionally that an orderly and safe environment is essential for effective learning to take place. The work to sort out the root causes of exclusions and improve standards of behaviour has been placed for the first time at the heart of our schools policy. Through our behaviour and attendance strategy we are helping schools to tackle the behaviour that gives rise to exclusion, and we have made it clear on a number of occasions that we are committed to backing head teachers’ authority when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion; heads can permanently exclude pupils who are very disruptive or violent. Our guidance states that we do not normally expect independent appeal panels to reinstate such pupils.

We believe that it is right, however, in a matter as serious as permanent exclusion from school, with all its implications, that parents should have a right of appeal to an independent body that is in a position to review the school’s decision impartially. In find it difficult to believe that, given their concern for parents’ interests, the Opposition do not seem to share that view. Independent appeal panels were originally known as appeal committees. They were introduced by the Conservative Government and came into operation in 1987.

We are committed to the idea that excluded pupils should get the most appropriate education to tackle patterns of poor behaviour, so that they can be effectively reintegrated into mainstream education. A range of provision is available for excluded pupils. The number of pupil referral units has increased by nearly 50 per cent. since 1997 and the number of places in them has nearly doubled, from 7,500 to 13,000. Our recently published guidance will help to ensure that all alternative provision addresses pupils’ behaviour and attainment.

For most pupils, however, mainstream school provides the broadest and most inclusive educational setting, but the pupils in question will be admitted to a school only when they are ready to return. We do not expect all permanently excluded pupils to be reintegrated into a mainstream school. That does not happen now and it will not happen in the future. It will depend on the child in each case.

Appeal panels are a necessary safeguard for pupils and parents. They are needed in the interest of natural justice, and they comply with the Human Rights Act 1998. Abolishing them would inevitably lead to a   sharp increase in legal action by parents against schools, and more cases about exclusion from school would be brought in the courts. That would mean more stress for teachers, governors and head teachers.

The majority of parents would not want that. A survey found last year that 60 per cent. of parents in England wanted to keep appeal panels. At present, there are about 1,000 exclusion appeals in each academic year, and parents seek judicial review of those in no more than a handful of cases. The risk of legal action being taken would increase significantly if appeal panels were abolished as parents would not have recourse to any other independent review of a school’s decision. That would be costly in time and money to everyone involved. The estimated cost would be in excess of £2,000 in legal fees per case—a cost that would fall on schools, parents and local authorities.

I know that concerns have been expressed about decisions by appeal panels to reinstate particular pupils, such as the case in 2002 of two pupils at the Glyn technology school in Surrey, who were permanently excluded for making death threats against a teacher, but who were subsequently reinstated by an appeal panel, and the more recent case of a pupil at a school in Hampshire, who was reinstated by a panel following exclusion for assaulting a member of staff. In both cases, teaching staff refused to teach those pupils, and places for them were found elsewhere.

Following the Glyn case, in January 2003, the composition of panels was changed to ensure that they would better reflect the realities of school life. Now a three-member panel comprises a serving or recently retired head teacher—or, in Wales, another education practitioner—a serving or recently serving governor and a lay member, who takes the chair. With a majority of panel members having experience of contemporary school life, there is less chance of odd or perverse decisions. Another change that was introduced in January 2003 was the option, in exceptional circumstances, for a panel to overturn an exclusion without reinstating the pupil.

Since 2003, panels have also been required, in deciding whether to reinstate a pupil, to balance the interests of the excluded pupil against the interests of all the members of the school community, including pupils, teachers and support staff. The National Assembly for Wales has adopted the same approach in its guidance on the issue.

Our guidance, to which, by law, appeal panels must have regard, emphasises the need for all panel members to be fully trained, and updated whenever changes are made to the law and guidance. Since 2001, a training pack has been available for the training of panel members in England. That has been revised to reflect changes in exclusion legislation.

Independent appeal panels do not reinstate a large number of excluded pupils. In the academic year 2002–03, the last year for which we have figures, there were 990 appeals and 21.1 per cent. of them went in favour of the parents. In fact, only 149 pupils out of a   total of 9,290 pupils who were permanently excluded were reinstated that year. That is fewer than 2 per cent. We believe, however, that it is important that parents should continue to have that safeguard in a matter that could have such a devastating and far-reaching effect on their children’s education and well-being. I hope that the motion will be withdrawn.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education) 4:45 pm, 22nd March 2005

The Minister referred to balancing the rights of the excluded pupil with those of the rest of the school. Such circumstances arise only when it has become impossible for a school to contain a disruptive pupil. The rights of the other pupils and, in some instances, the teachers—when there is violence against a pupil—must prevail.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s comments, but I have great confidence in the good sense of experienced head teachers. It remains my view that schools should have autonomy over exclusions, which should not be overturned by appeals panels. However, under the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.