Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) (E 123)

About ACE

1. Founded in 1960 the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) is a national charity that advises parents, carers, governors, local authorities and others on education law and practice. Our advice covers maintained schools for children of compulsory school age. We operate a free telephone advice line and thus are in daily contact with people experiencing a variety of educational issues. In 2010 we answered approximately 12,000 calls. Hearing parents describe their experiences gives ACE privileged access to how education law and policy impacts on children and their families. It allows us to speak with authority on behalf of parents facing difficulties within the education system. The statutory exclusions guidance (Improving Behaviour and Attendance: Guidance on Exclusion from Schools and Pupil Referral Units) states (para 89f) that schools/PRUs should advise parents/carers of ACE’s contact details when their child is excluded if they wish to receive independent advice.

Introduction

2. Proposals in the Education Bill raise particular concerns for ACE in relation to parents’ and children’s rights and school accountability.

Powers to search pupils (Clause 2)

3. ACE is concerned about the extension of powers to search pupils and their possessions without consent. The Bill expands the list of prohibited articles to include any item which may be used to commit an offence or cause injury and any item identified in school rules. This is extremely broad and one can imagine that it will be possible to justify almost any item under this definition. Staff will also be able to search devices such as mobile phones and laptops and delete content if they "think there is a good reason to do so". We believe that the proposals are a threat to children’s privacy rights. The powers are far reaching and it is essential that there is clear, strong guidance to schools on using them.

4. Currently searches may only be carried out by a member of staff of the same sex as the pupil in the presence of another member of staff. The Bill proposes that this requirement should be able to be overridden if it is not practicable because the search is a matter of urgency to prevent serious harm. We have concerns about issues of safeguarding, especially for some vulnerable groups of pupils such as children with SEN and looked after children.

Exclusion of pupils (Clause 4)

5. ACE believes that children who have been wrongly excluded from school should be allowed to return to their school if they wish. The Bill proposes that the current independent appeal panel (IAP) should be replaced by a review panel. The review panel will not have the power to direct reinstatement, instead they will be able to recommend or direct that the governing body reconsider their original decision. By giving the review panel no power to reinstate, ACE is concerned that families will have no easily accessible route available to challenge unjust treatment of their children.

6. ACE is aware from the parents we speak to on our advice line that mistakes can be made and that very often the reasons for exclusion are not clear cut. We hear of decisions being made in the heat of the moment or without proper investigations being carried out. What might first appear to be an obvious reason for permanent exclusion can on closer investigation reveal complex underlying issues, like special educational needs or disability discrimination and these cases are rarely clear cut. If the decision to exclude is taken fairly, following guidance and procedure correctly we do not understand why a school should have an issue with an independent panel looking at that decision and having the power to reinstate if they find there has been unjust treatment. Especially when you consider the huge impact exclusion can have on children and their families.

7. The proposals in the Bill may lead more parents to challenge the decision of the Headteacher through the courts by seeking judicial review. Retaining the current system of IAPs would surely be preferable to this potential situation.

8. ACE is concerned that changing the IAP to a review panel coupled with the proposed changes to legal aid for education cases could mean that some families, particularly the most disadvantaged, will find themselves without access to justice.

Admissions (Clause 34)

9. ACE is concerned that the proposals in the Bill could undermine fairness in the admissions system. The end of the requirement for local authorities to establish an admission forum, the abolition of the duty on local authorities to report annually on the fairness of admissions in their local area and the reduction in the powers of the School’s Adjudicator to look at all aspects of admissions in response to a referral are steps that could work against many of the improvements that have been made to the admissions system over recent years.

10. Effective admission forums are key to thorough scrutiny of admissions at a local authority level and an important part of the local accountability framework. The admissions system will become more fragmented as more schools become their own admission authority. This makes it even more essential that there is planned and co-ordinated scrutiny of what is happening in different schools in a local area. Without the forum there is a risk that fairness and local accountability will be undermined.

School governing bodies (Clause 37-38)

11. Governing bodies carry out a vital role in holding the leadership of a school to account on behalf of parents and the local community. ACE is concerned that the Bill makes proposals that will lead to a move away from local stakeholder governance to a skills based model. As more schools are created outside of local authority control, the LEA governor becomes even more important as a way of linking schools to the local authority through governance. Staff governors and community governors also play important roles and ACE would prefer to see these roles as a requirement for all schools.

Parental complaints about schools (Clause 44)

12. Based on the calls to our advice line, withdrawing the partially implemented right to complain to the LGO about internal school matters is not a step that would be welcomed by parents. When schools complaints cannot be effectively resolved it can damage relationships between parents and their child’s school. When this happens it is invariably the child and their education that suffers. Small unresolved issues can sometimes turn into much bigger problems. Parents raise concerns about the decision making processes of the school governing body and question whether they will properly challenge the actions and decisions of the Head or members of staff. The LGO is valued for its independence and their expertise in reviewing complaints and carrying out thorough investigations. Parents are more likely to accept decisions, even if they go against them, when they feel their complaint has been fully and fairly investigated by someone with no vested interest in the outcome. The LGO service offered exactly this to parents.

April 2011