By Brooke Lyne
Before I begin, I am pleased to say, that this case had a happy ending. The school officially withdrew the exclusion, the pupil was allowed to return to school and he has recently finished his GCSEs. The right result. Though this article isn’t so much concerned with the specifics of the case, rather, it discusses the appalling unprofessional behaviour of a school.
This case was about a student who had been excluded for persistent behavioural problems, in particular an escalation of poor behaviour in preceding months. But during that time the school failed to contact the pupil’s mother or tell her anything about the situation. In fact, the only contact she received was several days before the child was permanently excluded. This failure meant that she was completely unware until it was too late – no opportunity to address the situation or intervene. As we insisted at the hearing, parents should be fully informed especially if there is a risk that their child may be permanently excluded from school.
During the so-called ‘escalation period’ the student was given mixed messages. He often received positive comments on his report card and later discovered that statements of concern had been logged on his school record. He had also been receiving one-to-one external support, when this was stopped the student was told that he no longer required the support because his behaviour had improved. As a result of this inconsistency, the permanent exclusion was a shock both to the pupil and his mother.
Not only had there been manifest failures of communication up to the point of exclusion, the school continued to neglect their duty throughout the process. A head teacher is required to speak to the pupil and gather all relevant evidence and information before taking the decision to exclude. In this case, there was no statement, no discussion, no attempt to discuss the complex problems that the child had been experiencing at home. He was excluded without the opportunity to say a word. When I raised this point, the school argued that the child had not been given the opportunity to speak because he was unreasonable and anyway – they said – he was getting the opportunity to speak at the appeal. As I retorted – even the most unreasonable people have a right to be heard! Crucially, a fair decision could not have possibly been reached without considering all the evidence. The school had totally neglected their legal duty and failed the excluded pupil.
The final and perhaps most appalling display of unprofessionalism was the school’s treatment of the pupil’s mother. She was going through a very difficult time (working three jobs and having to care for a gravely ill family member) and there had been serious instability in the child’s life. In the school’s written submissions they repeatedly criticised her and at one stage compared her parenting to that of the child’s father (who had been the boy’s primary carer for some time previously). This treatment meant that the mother had begun to doubt her own parenting skills and believed that the situation was her fault. The school had seriously overstepped their professional bounds. But, most importantly, their perception of the mother was entirely irrelevant to the exclusion of the pupil. Thankfully, the Governors accepted these arguments and, quite rightly, apologised to the mother on behalf of the school.
This case demonstrates an important problem in school exclusion cases – schools often fail to follow the proper procedures when excluding pupils. Undoubtedly this failure is caused by lack of resources and proper training, but, in my submission, nothing can excuse the unprofessionalism in this case. It is absolutely vital that when a school takes the serious decision of excluding a child they start to get this stuff right When a family is already going through a challenging time it is so important that the school recognise this and act in an appropriate way. Despite my criticism of the school, in this case the Governors did their job correctly. They listened; they considered all the evidence and held the Head Teacher to account.