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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 18) (England) (Order) 2001

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 12 March 2001

[Mr. Jonathan Sayeed in the Chair]

Draft School Standards and Framework

Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 18)

(England) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 18) (England) Order 2001.

I should inform the Committee that because of a typographical error we have submitted a corrigendum. Under the heading ``Transitional provisions'', for ``paragraph 6(3)'' should be substituted ``paragraph 8(3)''.

The proposals seek to amend schedule 18 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Section 67 of, and schedule 18 to, the 1998 Act govern appeals against exclusion of pupils. Paragraph 18 of the schedule empowers my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to amend the schedule if necessary. Hon. Members will be aware that schools can permanently exclude pupils when serious indiscipline occurs. The 1998 Act contains safeguards for schools, children and parents. Under it, the process of exclusion begins with the head teacher's decision, which must then be reviewed by the school's governors. Where the governors uphold the exclusion but the parent remains unhappy, the final safeguard is an independent appeal. All those steps are governed by a statutory timetable that is designed to ensure rapid decisions.

The amendment concerns exceptional cases where there is good reason to delay the decision process. We want most to provide for circumstances where the excluded child is also subject to criminal proceedings. The amendment itself is quite straightforward. Paragraph 8(3) of schedule 18 currently provides that parents of permanently excluded pupils—or the pupils themselves if they are aged 18 or over—may ask the local education authority to set a date for an appeal hearing that is later than the statutory latest date, which is 15 school days after the appeal is lodged. We propose to repeal this narrow provision and replace it with a broader one through new paragraph 10(3), which will give the panel itself a general power to adjourn. As a result, in all cases the local education authority must convene an exclusion appeal hearing within 15 school days of the parent's lodging an appeal.

However, in certain circumstances the panel might decide to adjourn the hearing to a later date. One example of a possible adjournment is where a parent requests a delay in exceptional circumstances—a situation for which paragraph 8(3) currently provides. At present, the local education authority can agree to give the parent more time. Under the new provision, the panel could agree to allow the parent more time by adjourning. Essentially, the effect would be the same: parents will still be able to ask for more time where there is good reason. For example, they might need more time to prepare a more effective case; they might be waiting for new evidence, such as a medical report; there might be domestic reasons, such as illness or bereavement; or perhaps a witness cannot attend the hearing.

However, the principal reason for the proposed change is the circumstance, which unfortunately occurs from time to time, where an excluded pupil faces criminal proceedings arising from the incident that led to the exclusion. I am talking about an incident at school for which the head teacher has good reason to exclude, but which the police are asked to investigate, whether at the time of exclusion or at a later date. In some cases, the investigation might prove inconclusive or lead to a caution, but in others the police might decide that there is enough evidence to prosecute. In those cases, the difficulty can arise—as happened in a case last year—that the statutory timetable for the review of the exclusion by the discipline committee and then by the appeal panel moves faster than the time scale in which the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts resolve the matter.

A permanent exclusion case takes about 45 school days to reach the appeal stage, but the time needed for the police to investigate, for charges to be brought and for the courts to rule is sometimes longer than that. In that situation—which is exceptional—we want panels to have the option of adjourning to await the outcome of the criminal proceedings. It will depend on the circumstances of each case whether an adjournment is appropriate and for how long. However, panels will want to reduce the risk not only of prejudice to the criminal proceedings, but of their decision turning out to be inconsistent with the outcome of those proceedings.

We will, of course, need to give schools and local education authorities guidance on the circumstances in which the panel might appropriately use the power to adjourn. Where panels adjourn, local authorities continue to have a duty to provide suitable education outside school—which must be full-time by 2002—for any child who is excluded for 15 days or more. Within 15 days of the head teacher excluding a child, the governors' discipline committee must meet to decide whether to uphold the exclusion. If it decides to confirm the exclusion, the local authority must immediately arrange to assess the pupil's needs and how to meet them, irrespective of any subsequent appeal or adjournment. Therefore, although the order will allow adjournment of the appeal against exclusion, it will not allow authorities to delay making alternative education provision for the child.

If we do not make these changes, we will be left in the present unsatisfactory situation whereby the only means in which an appeal panel can adjourn is by inviting the parent to ask for an adjournment. That may work in some cases, but the panel is put in a difficult position if the parent insists on their appeal going ahead whatever the circumstances, including those in which court proceedings are known to be pending.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): The Minister's case appears to be eminently sensible. However, I am worried by her suggestion that there should be consistency between what the panel decides and what the court decides. The two avenues by which an appeal can be made against the claimed behaviour of the child should work independently. The panel should make independent decisions, not be influenced by the court. Will the Minister clarify that point?

Jacqui Smith: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for independence, but we must ensure, for example, that appeals panels have all the witnesses available to them. If any of those witnesses were involved with the criminal case, it would be difficult for them to appear before the panel.

The draft order is a positive measure that will improve the legislation governing school exclusion. I commend it to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The order is sensible, in practical terms. The process of excluding a pupil is always difficult, and it must be comprehensible, fair and reasonably fast, for the benefit of all those concerned—not only the school, but the student and his family. In anticipation of the Committee, I discussed the matter with a head teacher and parents in my constituency. There is concern that the process does not satisfy the three requirements that I mentioned, that it can drag on, and that it sometimes takes place in parallel, but not in conjunction with, other proceedings. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend), it is important to understand that the circumstances that lead to exclusion are often connected with judicial matters. That is not inevitable because there may be other parallel issues, but frequently there is an overlap. There is an issue about people playing a part in both legal proceedings and proceedings that lead to exclusion and subsequent appeal.

The order moves responsibility from parents and the LEA to the panel, which strikes me as helpful and sensible. The panel will consider cases independently, so we should support its power to deal with likely delays. However, we should take the opportunity to consider our worry that targets act as a barrier to schools excluding pupils who would be better educated elsewhere, which has a damaging impact on both the individual and the school. Sometimes a school must exclude a pupil to enable it to get on with its job and to maintain the quality of life for both teachers and students.

I shall test the Minister a little because I am concerned that the order implies an extended period of exclusion. I broadly support the order—the hon. Lady has put her case reasonably and fairly—but I am concerned about a student's continuing education during what could be an extended exclusion. She alluded to the period when the police obtain evidence and legal proceedings, which we know can take a considerable time.

My experience as both a school governor and a former member of a local education authority is that the setting of work for students who have been excluded for a considerable time is at best patchy. The Minister will acknowledge that that varies across the country, but I remember being on an education committee that received reports stating, ``Work is being set at home''. I was always uncertain how effective that would be in ensuring the good and proper continuing education of the child in line with the authority's statutory obligations.

The Government have commented on the setting of work and the Minister mentioned that requirements are changing in 2002, but that is next year. We want to know that there will be an emphasis on proper education during what could be a lengthy period between exclusion and appeal, which is when a permanent exclusion would be confirmed. We nevertheless support this practical and uncontentious order that gives more power to panels, which will be in the best position to judge possible delays due to the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned taking priority over an exclusion appeal.

I shall close my remarks on that note, which I know will disappoint members of the Committee, but I do not intend to take up their time unnecessarily.

4.44 pm


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