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Baroness Andrews: I am pleased that the noble Lord has found the correct section of the Act. I wish that I could say that having done so, we have changed our mind, but I cannot. I do not want to reiterate too much of what I said in Committee, but I want to make it clear that he and I are completely at one about the importance of an orderly and safe environment in schools as an essential condition for effective learning.
Work is in hand in the Government to tackle the causes of exclusion and improve standards of behaviour. We have made it clear on a number of occasions that we are committed to backing head teachers' authority when pupils' behaviour warrants exclusion and that heads can permanently exclude pupils who are very disruptive or violent. Our guidance states that we do not normally expect independent appeal panels to reinstate such pupils. It is important to put that on the record.
Having said that, I must make a few short points about why the amendment is wrong in principle and would not be helpful in practice. First, there are the rights of parents. In a matter as serious as exclusion from school, with all its implications, it would be against all notions of justice if parents had no right of appeal to an independent body that is in a position to review the school's decision impartially.
I am puzzledgiven the concern that it has shown for parents' interests and has so powerfully deployed in other debatesthat the party opposite does not share our view about the rights of parents in that respect. It is a matter of striking the right balance between the orderly conduct of a school and the rights of parents and pupils. Essentially, there is an issue of natural justice here. Let me put it in perspective. In the academic year 200203, 9,290 pupils were permanently excluded in England. Some 990 appeals were heard, and of those 209 were decided in favour of the parent and pupil. Only 149 pupils were reinstated.
We have achieved the right balance between the needs of the individual child to get the education that they need and the health and effectiveness of the school and the learning community as a whole. We are committed to seeing that excluded pupils get the most appropriate education and to tackling patterns of poor behaviour, so that where possible they can be reintegrated into mainstream education, which provides the most inclusive and effective setting. But they will be readmitted to a school only when they are ready to return. We do not expect all permanently excluded pupils to be reintegrated into a mainstream schoolthat does not happen now, and it will not happen in future.
We have made further changes to help schools to deal with the admissions protocols. On 1 February 2005, the Secretary of State announced that admissions protocols
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for hard to place pupils in England need not apply to previously excluded pupils until 2007, if the schools in an area do not consider that they are ready to take them. We expect admissions protocols, which may include other hard to place children, such as those who are in the care of a local authority, to be in place by September this year. We have listened to what school and LEA representatives have had to say about the arrangements, and we have taken into account their concerns about the availability of support. We do not believe it is fair to expect schools to take in potentially disruptive pupils without appropriate support, and this should enable most schools to agree to a protocol for most hard-to-place pupils. That is why we have made an exception for previously excluded pupils.
There is the very practical argument that abolishing appeals panels would not help schools to cope with disruptive pupils or reduce their numbers. Indeed, the loss of appeal rights would inevitably lead to a sharp increase in legal action by parents against schools. There would be more stress for teachersand more stress for governors, parents and pupils.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has said that he feels the appeals panels have been discredited. The majority of pupils would not say so. Indeed, I can give evidence about the majority of parents, for a survey last year found that 60 per cent of parents in England wanted to keep appeals panels. Indeed, of the 1,000 exclusion appeals in each academic year, there are only a handful of cases in which parents seek a judicial review. The risk of legal action being taken, however, would increase significantly if parents did not have recourse to a school's decisionand costs would increase to everybody around.
Finally, given the cases to which the noble Lord referred, I must say again that we have responded to take account of contemporary classroom conditions and improved the composition and the support available to panels. Following the case that the noble Lord mentioned, in January 2003 the composition of panels was changed to ensure that they better reflect the realities of school life. A three-member panel now comprises a serving or recently retired head teacheror, in Wales, another education practitionerwith a serving or recently serving governor, and a lay member. We have also changed the option, in exceptional circumstances, of a panel overturning an exclusion without reinstating the pupil. Another change is that panels are now required, in deciding whether to reinstate, to balance the interests of the excluded pupil against the interests of all other members of the school community. This has also been done in Wales. We have also improved guidance and training provision.
We have done all we can in recent years to ensure that we have protected the human rights of parents and pupils. However, for the system to be made as responsive and reflective as possible, it needs to balance the various interests involved. I hope that noble Lords opposite will not be pressing this amendment.
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Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. One has obviously thought quite a lot about this. The independent appeals panels are relatively new in their establishment. There was obviously a situation before them in which I was closely involved. I am probably the only Member of the House to have been involved in literally hundreds of such situations. I have, over many years, met parents and children and worked with head teachers regarding some of these difficult children. This was when I was involved on a day-to-day basis with the education service.
The system was better before the appeals panels. When the decisions were made there was always some kind of panel, but they were mainly made up of local authority representativeswho obviously took the interests of parents and had a particular interest in schools. They worked well with head teachers to try to find a solution to the problemfinding another school for a young person, for example. They could do such things by being involved in the local education authority. Although I say so myself, the situations I was involved in over the years are rather better than what we have now. Therefore I would rather go back to the good old days before we had the panels and allow it to be done more on a local basis. As with our approach in other areas, it would go back to letting local people devise a system to an extent.
We all believe in natural justice, and we shall all have situations where parents and young people may be involved. Yet there needs to be some support shown for the schoolsand the schools do not like these panels. It was, as I say, better previously. On this matter, I would wish to go back to those good old days, so I am afraid that I am going to test the opinion of the House today.
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