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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I rise to support the spirit of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. I think that we are all agreed that we must always listen to the voice of the child. I, too, welcome what the Government are doing to bring forward better guidance and regulations to ensure that that voice is always heard.
I echo the noble Baroness's words that we cannot always rely on the parents. We all know that the vast majority of parents have the good of their children and their welfare very much in mind, but a few parents either cannot or will not support their children in the very stressful situation in which a few children find themselves. It might be in the interests of the parent to prevent the child's voice being heard.
It is a matter of basic human rights that, in this particular situation when the whole future of their education is at stake, children's voices should be heard. So, while welcoming what the Government have already agreed to do, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, in urging them to do even more.
Baroness David: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden. The common picture of the excluded pupil is one of a young adolescent out of control, very difficult to educate, abusive, uncooperative, and who has a disregard for authority. Such children are demonised by society and, with their parents, are frequently criticised by the leaders of society. For example, on Tuesday BBC News published a news item about a speech from David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, criticising the extreme use of procedures at appeal panels which he said put heads "in the dock". He went on to criticise appeal panels for reinstating pupils on "flimsy grounds" which damaged the "law-abiding majority" of children. He said:
"Too often LEAs [local education authorities] are intimidated by lawyers, barrack room or real, or by self-appointed pressure groups, waving the civil libertarian flag and threatening damages or other mayhem. This spreads to independent appeal panels which are still reinstating on flimsy groups".
Is there any research evidence that supports this view? I suspect the majority of excluded pupils are frightened, greatly concerned about losing the familiar parts of their lives, including their friends, and worried about their future. They are not supported by lawyers, barrack room or real, or by self-appointed pressure groups. We know an increasingly large number of excluded pupils are from the primary sector.
Last year, Parliament approved a new Children Act which puts a duty on a range of bodies to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. One body which was not included was the Independent Appeal Panel, which parents can appeal to on behalf of their children when they have been excluded. I support the amendment, which brings those bodies in line with others which have responsibilities to children. I also support the second part of the amendment, which
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gives a voice to the child at the appeal hearings. At present, only parents and their representatives have the opportunity of saying what happened. It is right that children should also have a voice, and that the appeal panel can hear the child's words on any incident at the school which resulted in the exclusion. If the Minister is redrafting the guidance, I hope she will pay attention to what has been said in this short debate.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I urge the Minister to consider seriously the amendment of my noble friend. Justice is tested in that small number of cases of extraordinary fact. The voice of the child must be heard where the parent will not agree to the case either going to appeal or being heard by whatever procedure is available. If that is so, the state should not test which are the extraordinary cases; it should be open to the child to be heard in such a serious matter.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, very briefly, I also welcome the Government's receptiveness to the amendments. In Committee, I qualified my support because I had not had an opportunity to speak with practitioners. Since then, I have spoken with Professor John Adams of the National Association of School Governors, and with a well respected primary teacher who has had to exclude pupils in the past and whose husband is a governor. They both strongly support the principle of involving children as far as possible in the procedures. I am glad to see the Government's receptiveness to that.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we are at one with the intention of the amendment, and I am sorry the noble Baroness has had to wait so long to arrive at this pointshe was very patient with us the other night. We did debate an earlier version and I promised we would reflect in the light of the issues. We have done so, not least in relation to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. We were grateful that the noble Baroness drew attention to the research project commissioned by Save the Children Fund, and we have looked at it closely. I am not aware of any other research, but we will look at that.
With her involvement in the Children Bill as it was going through this House, I think the noble Baroness will agree with me how serious we are about articulating and amplifying the voice of the child. We are getting better at that in government. We are fully supportive of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which she quoted. It states:
"State parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child".
I agree with that absolutely. We have therefore decided, as she says, to look hard at the guidance, and to amend and strengthen it in that respect.
My noble friend asked me why it was not proper to amend the exclusions legislation in the regulations. The problem is that those regulations were amended as recently as March 2004. With great respect, we believe that schools and local authorities should be left alone to embed and work out those regulations. Frequent
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changes are unsettling; we are often asked in Government to give schools periods of stability. We intend to do that, but we have decided that we can strengthen our guidance in several places to emphasise the importance we attach to the child having a voice in the exclusion process. That guidance has the force of law. We are proposing that head teachers should not only allow pupils to give their version of events, but alsothe significant changepositively encourage them to do so. Guidance on review by governing bodies and appeal panels will be enhanced so that in each case pupils should be encouraged to attend. If they do attend, they should be sent copies of the paper. Therefore, we shall make it clear that an excluded pupil under the age of 18 should be allowed and encouraged to speak on his or her own behalf at governing body meetings and independent appeal hearings, if he or she wishes to do so.
We have been asked why there is still an element of parental agreement involved. We have already changed that from the parent requesting the child be involved, to the parent agreeing. That is a significant change, but we would also like to reflect on the involvement of the parent in that context as part of our wider policy of review on parenting. I can send that signal to the House. On the detail of how the guidance will be changed, I will write to my noble friend since we are under pressure of time today, setting out the details.
On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, we are sensitive to the concerns he has expressed about the position of looked-after children. It is extremely important that their views are taken into account, and that they are given as much confidence and support to express them as possible. The exclusions guidance will make specific note of the particular circumstances of those pupils. It will advise them that whenever a looked-after child is excluded, anyone defined as a parent has the right to make representations and appeals, and that those children will be allowed and encouraged to participate more fully at all stages of the exclusion process. As my noble friend Lord Wedderburn said, those are cases where justice is involved, and it is important that everyone's rights, particularly the child's, are observed.
My officials are currently involved in dialogue with Save the Children. We have had warm and positive support for the changes we want to make and for how the guidance will be worded to make clear there are proper opportunities. We are taking careful note of their proposals, and where possible we will incorporate their recommendations into revised guidance. We also need to consult informally with other parties. On the timescale, again we are aware of the need to act quickly. The guidance can be changed online easily and quickly. Erratum slips can be inserted in printed versions of the guidance until our current stocks are exhausted in about three months' time. Then, in the next print runs, we will make the necessary amendments.
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I hope that noble Lordsmy noble friend in particularfeel that her assiduousness has been well rewarded by the Government, and that the changes will be to the huge benefit of the children whom she is trying to protect.
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