Education Bill

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Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I want to refer specifically to amendment No. 341, which deals with an issue of great concern to heads and chairs of governors in my constituency—and, I suspect, in other parts of the country. Recently, schools have often been overruled by appeals panels, leaving both the head and chair of governors profoundly unhappy as they feel that they cannot exercise authority in their own schools.

I know of two specific cases in which head teachers permanently excluded pupils for drug dealing in school, which is a criminal matter. The pupils appealed to an exclusion panel and were reinstated. That creates immense difficulties for heads and chairs of governors. When a pupil has been seen dealing in drugs, thus committing a criminal act in school, has been expelled but is subsequently reinstated by an appeal panel, it totally undermines the ability of heads and teachers to manage and maintain discipline in their schools. When other teenagers see that it is possible to get away with it, relatively few sanctions can be applied. It leads to the attitude: ''I was reinstated on appeal, so you cannot touch me''.

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Mr. Lewis: May I just clarify whether the police or courts confirmed that teenagers were dealing in drugs within the particular school?

Chris Grayling: To the best of my knowledge, the schools chose not to involve the police, which was probably appropriate in the interests of the teenagers concerned. When we discover kids doing that, we do not always want to involve the police. I am not a great believer in criminalising young people if it is not necessary.

My point is that the Government should give clear guidelines on what is permissible in the exclusion process. Heads and governors must have certainty that when they opt for exclusion, they are on reasonably safe ground and will be overruled by an exclusion panel only in certain circumstances. There will always be grey areas and uncertain cases, but there should be a benchmark. I remember another case in which a head teacher went into an exclusion panel without any representation to find a raft of legal and professional advisers set against the school. They had an intense and difficult argument that led to a reinstatement decision being taken. We need a framework to enable everyone involved—teachers and panels—to be certain of the ground on which they operate.

The amendment would not make specific provision in respect of what those circumstances or guidelines should be. It would give the Secretary of State the right to issue regulations to set them out, and I know from conversations that such guidelines would be enormously welcomed. It is not a question of telling the Government what to do, but giving them the power to respond to something for which I know that heads and chairs of governors are asking. The Government have been reluctant to accept Opposition amendments, but I hope that they can agree to this one. It does not tie their hands to do anything beyond providing guidelines if they deem it to be appropriate. In that spirit, and given that heads and chairs of governors want to see a greater structure to the appeal process, I commend the amendment.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I will address amendment No. 262, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) briefly alluded. It concerns an additional category that we believe should be added to clause 49(3), which is that local education authorities and governing bodies should have set out in regulations guidance on how, when and in which circumstances sufficient provision should be made for emotional or behavioural difficulties of a pupil who has been excluded under the clause's provisions.

We believe that the matter should be addressed in the Bill is because it relates to the particular difficulties that education authorities and governing bodies have with pupils who have special educational needs. As I have mentioned in earlier debates, the range of needs is enormous: from small behavioural problems that can be put right if recognised early, to large problems that, if exclusion became necessary, would mean that

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the pupil's parents should have the comfort of knowing that their child's condition was taken into specific consideration.

Yesterday in Westminster Hall we had a good debate on autism, which a few members of the Committee attended. It is now recognised as an important and serious mainstream problem, not just a rare illness. I noted that no Education Minister was present. I make no criticism: Ministers are very busy. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), responded to the debate, and did so extremely well. However, as no Education Minister was present, Ministers in this Committee may not be aware of the conclusion that was reached by all sides yesterday.

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The problems of families with children with autism and autism spectrum disorders have been sidelined. This is autism awareness year. In the spirit of making people who are responsible in this area aware of the problems I believe that this matter should appear on the face of the Bill. [Interruption.] The Minister is muttering that that is not what the amendment says. Although the word ''autism'' does not appear, it is covered by the term ''behavioural difficulties''. If the Minister wishes to intervene I am happy to give way to him.

Mr. Lewis: I will speak later.

Mrs. Laing: It is generally accepted—the Government accept this and previous Governments are also culpable—that education authorities, social services departments, health authorities, school governors and others in authority have not had a comprehensive plan for dealing with autistic children. This is yet another place where such a problem can arise, but there is no specific duty, nor indeed guidance, for any of those Government bodies to address it in a particular way. It ought to be here in the Bill.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): A set of circumstances in my constituency has caused a great deal of concern to me and my constituents. Some autistic children have been classified as suffering from emotional and behavioural difficulties, although it is debatable whether that is appropriate. That is a side issue and we should not stray too far. However, I would not wish it to be misunderstood. One of the biggest issues in my constituency, and I know that I am not alone, has been the reduction in facilities and places for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. There would be scope under amendment No. 262 to make it absolutely clear in regulations what has to be taken into account when making provision for such children. It therefore seems sensible to include it in the Bill.

Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. If Parliament gives local education authorities, governing bodies and any other body

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power to do something, we should set out in primary legislation what we expect them to do. I seek the Minister's assurance that notwithstanding the absence of Education Ministers from yesterday's debate on autism, they have accepted the subject's importance and that they will keep it at the front of their minds and not treat it merely as a side issue when considering the need sometimes to exclude children with particular behavioural problems. The vast majority of families of such children are already under enormous stress because of the child's medical condition, and it is only fair to families and children that the matter be given prominence.

Mr. Lewis: We are discussing an important subject on which there is a large degree of consensus about objectives and priorities. We are dealing with a variety of issues. One is the balance between the best interests of an individual child and the overall interests of a group of children comprising a class or a whole school. Classroom teachers and head teachers must try to strike the right balance day to day, but it is not easy.

As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said, it is important to minimise any feeling of fear or intimidation among teachers. It is impossible to ask the members of any profession to work to the best of their ability if they feel, as a result of personal experience or the experiences of colleagues or family, that doing their job is dangerous. Government and other politicians have a responsibility to support teachers and head teachers in that respect. It is sad that they do not always have the right level of support from parents when children behave in an unacceptable and threatening way. We hope that in most civilised communities and societies, teachers receive the support and backing of parents. I think that the whole Committee wants to send a message about what teachers and head teachers should be able to expect from parents and others in the community.

We also have a responsibility to excluded children and we must ensure that decisions are fair, transparent and objective, not subjective. Inadvertently, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) used an example that showed some of the difficulties vividly. Anecdotally, he referred to a head teacher's view that some young teenagers had been caught dealing—a strong word—drugs in the school. They were excluded on that basis but were allowed back to school on appeal. However, there was no evidence that any objective observer of the situation, such as the police, the courts or the criminal justice system, had verified or confirmed that the young people had been dealing drugs. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman responded to my point. He said, rightly, that schools are often reluctant to involve the police and the criminal justice system because they do not want to criminalise children.

However, excluding a child from school, particularly permanently, is potentially equally stigmatising and damaging to their development, educational progression, career and adult life. I have never experienced exclusion—perhaps I should have—but it is a powerful, traumatic and stigmatising experience not only for the child, but for most families.

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We accept that one difficulty is that some families show insufficient interest in their child's education and behaviour at school.

For the vast majority of families, the permanent exclusion of a son or daughter from school is traumatic and stigmatising. Legislation must ensure a genuinely fair and objective system that allows the right to appeal on reasonable grounds. It is a matter of natural justice. Young people and their families must have that right.

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