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Baroness Walmsley: I have added my name and that of my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford to this amendment, and I rise to support it. Being excluded from school can often be a cataclysmic and disastrous life-changing event for a child. It is unbelievable to me that it could happen to a child without him or her having the opportunity properly to express his or her side of the story and give his or her views.
We cannot rely on parents to be able to put the child's point of view. The parent often does not know the truth of the situation and certainly cannot express it in the way that the child can. It is unfortunate that sometimes in the regulations the parent can be a gatekeeper, because the regulations say that the child can give his or her opinion if the parent agreesthat really should go. The UN convention says that it is the child's views that we must hear. When we went through the Children Act 2004, the Government accepted that the child's wishes and feelings should be taken into account in certain parts of the Bill. In a situation as cataclysmic and as damaging to a child's future prospects as exclusion from school, it is absolutely essential. You only have to look at the number of young offenders who have been excluded from school to realise what a very important event exclusion is in the life of a child. It is essential that their voices be heard.
The Earl of Listowel: I strongly support this amendment, but with one qualification. On the point of the parents in this case, who are the gatekeepers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, put it, I note that the Princess Royal Trust for Carers supports this amendment. One can well imagine the situation of a young carer with a parent with a mental disability, or with an alcohol or drug addiction, where family circumstances are such that parents in that case are not best placed to make that decision, or cannot helpfully do so, at least where there are difficulties involved in the family. Family circumstances are often closely connected with the child's behaviour in school.
In the research referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, one boy, who I will call Stuart, a 16 year-old from Hull, was interviewed. He was permanently excluded from his school, and he subsequently went into care. At the time of the interview, he was doing fairly well in his new school, but no longer had any contact with his family. In his instance, it may have been that the parental relationship was not such that it would have been helpful to involve the mother or father in the decision about whether the boy could make an appeal.
I have spoken recently with a young woman who was an asylum seeker, who was fostered. Her foster mother had a nervous breakdown in the course of her care. This young woman, who was very resilient, is now starting at university, but in other circumstances
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that child might have begun to suffer at school, and it would be helpful for the school governors to know her background circumstances.
Another child who was in care in a children's home was telling me that she shared a bedroom with five other children. Again, in the exclusion process, the governors might well wish to know that that was happening in her case, in order to inform that process. It is vital that children have the experience of agency in their lives as far as possible in a proportionate way. The Government recognise that, and they are enshrining that in the Children Act as one of the five outcomes about contributing to society. They need to be involved in the decision-making processes which affect them.
If a child does not feel involved in those processes and if, in the past, he has had experience of the adult world not being sympathetic towards him and treating him badly, as many of these children have, there is a danger that in life he will go on to carry a grievance against the adult world and society. If one creates every opportunity for such children to express their point of view and if one bends over backwards to be fair towards them, there is at least a chance that that sense of grievance will be reduced and perhaps done away with altogether. So, for children who are leaving school, this could be a very educative experience in ensuring that their voice is heard. I hope that, in her response, the Minister can be sympathetic towards the amendment. I think that it fits quite well with government policy.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I support the amendment, which was moved so persuasively by the noble Baroness. It is crucial that, with all the legislation protecting their rights, children have the ability to exercise those rights. Spelling it out in this way within the education system, which is still not seen as part of the total well-being concept in the Children Act, will help very much.
As has already been said, one worrying aspect is the number of children whose parents may not be on their sideperhaps for understandable reasons. But there is a need for an independent person who can speak on their behalf when decisions such as this are taken. I have to say that, quite apart from the examples that we have heard from other noble Lords, a number of these children are in this situation because truancy has been allowed to develop over a long period. On occasion, no doubt the school is all too delighted not to have within its premises children who might be disruptive.
The Earl of Listowel: I apologise but I did mention that there was one qualification to my supportthat is, I have not heard from teachers or governors on this matter. I imagine that they will be mostly very supportive of the amendment because I think that
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most of them feel that, so far as possible, children should be involved in important decisions which affect their lives.
Baroness Andrews: As I hope noble Lords would expect, we are entirely sympathetic with the main thrust of the amendment. It is a very important matter. The noble Baroness moved the amendment most eloquently and brought some new and powerful research to our considerations.
By way of preface, everything that the noble Baroness said fits in with what we are trying to do in governmentthat is, we are trying to be much more responsive to the voice of the child, no matter in what context and no matter what is said and how it is heard. In 2002, we started with Listening to Learnan action plan for involving children and young people. That was updated in July 2004. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, the whole thrust of the Children Act, not least thanks to the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was to amplify the voice and the role of the child in helping us to inform our policies in the interests of children. Therefore, we are very much moving towards that agenda. During debate on this Bill, for example, we have already discussed how pupils receive their own feedback as part of the inspection process. They will have their own letter describing what the inspector has found, tailored to their needs.
However, one point that we must bear in mind is the process of exclusion. It is a serious process which, as noble Lords have said, has a very serious impact on young people. We also have to ensure that the balance of interests is satisfied. The welfare of individual pupils is vital, and responsible bodies dealing with exclusions must also consider the welfare of others in the school community. So we are talking very much about getting the balance right. Placing a duty on responsible bodies to have regard only to the welfare and education of an individual child could result in decisions which may adversely affect their overall duty to be able to deliver the welfare and education of the wider school community. We had similar debates earlier in Committee and we should be aware of that matter in context.
Regarding excluded pupils missing out on education, since September 2002 all local authorities have made a commitment to provide full-time education for all permanently excluded pupils and the vast majority of authorities are doing this. We are working with those that are finding it more difficult.
Guidance is issued both in England and Wales, which goes to appeal panels and governing bodies. That certainly advises that if they wish to do so and the parent agrees, young people would be allowed to speak and to give their accounts of events at each stage of the exclusions process. Schools which are not doing that are not following the guidance. A message should be sent to those schools. We agree with the spirit of the amendment, but since our guidance makes it clear that head teachers and reviewing bodies should involve
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pupils, we do not believe that legislation is necessary. That will disappoint my noble friend and other noble Lords who have spoken.
However, we would like to reflect on the research that she has mentioned and the arguments that she has made. In the light of my assurance regarding the guidance that we use, especially regarding some of the arguments put about the importance of the child speaking when sometimes the parent is either unwilling or reluctant to come forward, perhaps the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment and allow us to consider what she and other noble Lords have said.
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