At the beginning of the year, every GDL student is greeted with the usual whirlwind of information; lectures, seminars, introductory talks, mooting, pro bono, you name it! In spite of the chaos, I managed to stumble upon a project which provides a truly unique opportunity to GDL students. I would like to briefly tell you about the School Exclusion Project, how it makes an invaluable impact to vulnerable members of society, and how it can assist a prospective solicitor or barrister.
Let’s start with a statistic: in the 2013-2014 academic year, according to Department for Education statistics, an average of 26 children per day were permanently excluded from school. Thousands of families enter into an unfamiliar process which can be extremely upsetting, daunting and confusing. This is where the SEP steps in. The project provides free representation and advice to parents who have been affected school exclusions. GDL students represent parents throughout the exclusion process, from Governors’ Disciplinary Committee meetings to First Tier Tribunal hearings all around the country. The role played by the SEP is of paramount importance, as statistics indicate there is a link between permanent exclusions and diminished future prospects. In 2008, less than 1% of pupils who are sent to Pupil Referral Units, after having been permanently excluded, achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A* – C, and only 11.7% achieved at least one GCSEs at A* – C. Therefore, it is essential that a permanent exclusion is truly a last resort. As a student, the opportunity to contribute to such an important cause is one not to be missed.
Before outlining the role of a student rep in more detail, it’s worth mentioning the training day which students must attend. Reps are given a crash course in the law of exclusions and discrimination, run by barristers from Matrix Chambers and 11 KBW. This course focuses on two key documents on exclusion law: Education Act 2002 and a 2012 Department for Education Statutory Guidance on ‘Exclusion from Maintained Schools, Academies and Pupil Referral Units in England’ issued by the Department for Education. After having attended the training day, reps are free to take on cases, during which they will be provided support by barristers from the aforementioned chambers.
That being said, what does the job of a student rep actually entail? First of all, through the nature of their role, reps have the opportunity to gain invaluable advocacy experience. The exclusion hearings themselves require careful preparation and confident delivery of arguments, skills which are crucial to the development of a successful advocate. In fact, GDC meetings often prove to be challenging environments in which to present oral arguments, which can greatly enhance one’s ability to fearlessly argue a client’s case. The GDC’s present an invaluable opportunity to develop advocacy skills in real life settings, with real life consequences. However, an important lesson which I learnt from my experiences as a rep is that the impact of well constructed written advocacy must not be underestimated. Well written submissions can significantly alter the dynamic of a case, opening doors to your client which had been previously closed. A favourable alternative, such as the possibility of negotiating a managed move to another school, may be considered by a headteacher upon receipt of well drafted written arguments. Thus, the nature of the advocacy experience gained by a rep is truly comprehensive, spanning from negotiations to hearings, involving both oral and written advocacy.
In addition to advocacy, the Project is extremely beneficial on both a practical and personal level. Practically speaking, reps have the opportunity to undertake tasks which are of crucial importance to any legal career, such as holding conferences with clients, taking their instructions and offering legal advice. It is extremely rare to have this degree of autonomy at the beginning of legal study, allowing reps to develop these significant case management skills. In terms of personal development, confidence in one’s own ability as an advocate can be gained through the responsibility a rep has for his/her case. While daunting at first, the experience of having one’s own case, from start to finish, is extremely rewarding, as your skills as an advocate can play a key role in achieving a positive result for your client.
Finally, the experiences gained from the project provide a new dimension to the GDL. In a year of intense academic study, the project demonstrates the practical impact of the law on the lives of others. A deeper understanding of the law is gained once one has witnessed its practical consequences, considering the process from the client’s perspective. The significance of legal mechanisms, such as judicial review, became more apparent to me, once I had not only approached them from a theoretical standpoint, but when I had argued a case concerning a ground of judicial review, procedural impropriety, on behalf of my client. This experience encourages a broader approach to legal training, reminding us to always ask ourselves how the theory translates into practical implementation. After having ensured that a child is able to return to school, it became apparent to me that a career in the law is not only a rigorous, rewarding intellectual challenge, but also an opportunity to play a role in a process which forms the very fabric of our society.
Charles McCombe has just completed his Graduate Diploma in Law at City University and is currently a representative with the School Exclusion Project.