The legal support available to excluded pupils outside London is almost non-existent, lawyers have warned, amid concerns that schools are hiring barristers to oversee appeals.
Alex Temple, a lawyer with charity Just for Kids Law, claimed schools and councils were also “failing really basic points” such as offering incorrect guidance or not providing board minutes.
He said the charity discovered the discrepancies after expanding its operation outside London and into the West Midlands and Greater Manchester in October.
Temple said the exclusion appeal cases taken on by the charity in Birmingham, Northamptonshire and Trafford reveal “a bizarre bureaucratic quagmire in which each local authority has developed its own set of rules and is just completely disregarding how its job is meant to be discharged under national regulations”.
In Trafford, the council published guidance on their website saying that schools could convert fixed-term exclusions to permanent exclusions, which, according to Temple, “explicitly contradicted national guidance”. After the charity raised the issue with the council, they updated the guidance.
A spokesperson for Trafford Council insisted the guidance was not “illegal”, but accepted that it included a statement from 2017 that “may not have been amended” when the latest government guidance was updated.
Permanent exclusions have been rising since 2012-13, up to 7,900 in 2017-18; however, they still remain low at just 0.1 per cent of the school population.
The North East had the highest rate of permanent exclusion with 14 per 10,000 pupils, followed by the North West and West Midlands on 13. The South East had the lowest rate (six).
Parents can request a review of a permanent exclusion, but just 640 reviews were lodged in that period, with 79 (12 per cent) resulting in an offer of reinstatement.
Jules Daulby, an inclusion and literacy specialist, said exclusions are a “postcode lottery” with “no consistency” in the behaviour policies between different schools or areas.
Temple also said there was “absolutely no provision or support for young people facing exclusion” in areas outside London.
He had also heard that schools were hiring lawyers to help represent them in exclusion tribunals, even in cases when the family did not have legal representation.
“I’ve heard of barristers being instructed to represent schools, basically whenever the family is constructing an argument that suggests it has a grasp of the law, or even being instructed to come to represent them at the very first instance at the governors’ body hearing.
“When exclusions get to the tribunal, some families are represented [by lawyers] but schools are always represented no matter what. One hundred per cent of the time, schools have lawyers paid for by the state when families are denied that, because there is no legal aid available for them.”
The charity has launched a new online resource called the School Exclusions Hub, offering advice, guidance and tools to families who want to challenge exclusion.
It comes as prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed to give schools the “powers they need to deal with bad behaviour”.
A poll by Teacher Tapp found that if teachers were given a ‘magic wand and able to change just one thing about teaching’, they would be most likely to want ‘every child’s behaviour to be good enough so that learning is never disrupted’.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the decision to exclude is “never taken lightly” and “sometimes necessary to ensure that other pupils are able to learn in a safe and well-ordered environment”.
He said early intervention is essential to prevent behavioural issues escalating to exclusion, adding that cuts to school budgets have affected provision.
“Despite these pressures, the vast majority of schools continue to do their very best to prevent the need for an exclusion. When an exclusion does take place, they are required to follow detailed statutory guidance that includes the right of parents to an independent review-panel hearing.”
Former education secretary Damian Hinds announced the first substantive review of government behaviour guidance in more than three years. That includes a £10 million pot to train teachers how to deal with unruly pupils.