Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I pretty much agree with the Minister, who makes a good argument in favour of our amendment. Where a child has been caught dealing drugs but the school, reluctant to criminalise, seeks to adopt civil rather than criminal redress, it is important to ask whether the case has been seen through in a proper judicial way. Does that example not reinforce the case for heads and exclusion panels to have some guidelines? If the police had not been brought in and the child not convicted of the offence, without compelling evidence, the normal inclination of the appeal panel would be to quash the exclusion. That demonstrates how guidelines could enormously facilitate the whole process.

Mr. Lewis: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of guidance and support. We are talking about young people being excluded from school for dealing drugs. Appeals panels would consist of strange and unreasonable people if, having examined the facts—not anecdote or an off-the-record conversation with an MP—and concluded that the youngsters did indeed deal drugs in school, they decided that the exclusion had been wrong.

The hon. Gentleman concluded that the teenagers were drugs dealers, but did not provide the Committee with enough detail about the evidence to justify the panel saying that the case made by the person who saw the drug dealing was borne out by the evidence. Although clear and constructive guidance may be helpful, a panel of reasonable people considering evidence should not be expected always to find in favour of the head teacher and the school. If it did always find in favour, there would be no point in having a fair and objective appeals process.

Chris Grayling: I still do not disagree with the Minister. In these cases, two governing bodies and two head teachers were deeply upset. They felt that their authority within the school had been overruled and that they had been let down by the appeals process. The amendment is simply designed to give the Secretary of State the power to issue regulations and set a framework for a process that will reduce the likelihood of one or other side feeling deeply let down.

Mr. Lewis: The clause makes it clear that the Government will issue guidance to set out the parameters, the roles and responsibilities of the appeals process and the people who conduct it. I am referring to guidance rather than regulations. The hon. Gentleman wants the people taking these decisions to be guided to examine facts appropriately and follow a robust and transparent process. Surely making it clear that the guidance suggested by the hon. Gentleman

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will be issued is every bit as powerful and achieves exactly the same objective as the amendment that would require the Government to issue regulations. It is no different from the hon. Gentleman's example of the decision that was taken in that particular case. What matters is that the appeals panel has guidance and understands the basis on which it should make decisions sensibly, objectively and fairly.

3.15 pm

Mr. Brady: That raises another significant point. The Minister said that guidance will be issued. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell gave the example of pupils who are found to be dealing in, and probably by extension, taking, drugs. The Home Secretary recently decided to downgrade the treatment of certain illegal drugs and to treat them differently, especially marijuana. Will the Minister make it clear whether the guidance will require schools and appeals panels to treat marijuana as an illegal drug, or are the Government happy to go along with the Home Secretary's approach of downgrading the seriousness of that drug? The Minister knows that there has been confusion in some LEAs about that.

Mr. Lewis: I will try to address the point made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West later in the debate. It is important that we make progress.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked whether it is appropriate to include some of the material in the regulations rather than in legislation. We have had that debate throughout the proceedings, and have disagreed about whether it is more appropriate and effective to include some of the issues in the regulations or whether it should be in primary legislation. It is clear that secondary legislation will have the same legal effect as primary legislation. If one considers the legislative framework, moving matters to secondary legislation will in no way lead to reduced rights for individuals or change the fairness of the procedures for schools, pupils or teachers. I want to make it clear that at this stage there is no intention to make changes to the current system other than to those on which we have consulted and that are in the public domain. Several other important points have been made that are related more to the substance of policy than to whether these matters should be in primary or secondary legislation.

The Government have sympathy with the intentions of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and his hon. Friends in tabling amendments Nos. 261, 262 and 341. We largely agree with their objectives, which are similar to our own. The differences are in the approach to achieving them. On amendment 261, the health, safety and welfare of staff and other pupils at a school or pupil referral unit will be an element.

Chris Grayling: The Minister made an important point and gave a good example of where the Government intend to provide a statutory framework within which exclusion panels will operate. I am not sure why he is reluctant to broaden the framework.

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Mr. Lewis: I addressed that in my contribution. The Opposition's objective will be achieved by the Government's proposed course of action. Surely, the key issue for parents, pupils, teachers, head teachers and those who sit on appeals panels is that we achieve the objective in a transparent and up-front manner.

Mr. Willis: This is an important part of the Bill. There is not a million miles between the Minister, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and me. What schools require from the system, and what we are arguing for in our different ways, is consistency across the model. Nothing is worse than an appeals panel making decisions following one interpretation of the guidance and another making exactly the opposite decision somewhere else. That causes problems and is why it is crucial that we have clear definitions about the circumstances in which an appeals panel would make its decisions.

The Minister is trying. We want him to go further and provide details of the guidance. I hope that we will be able to see it before the Committee concludes its business.

Mr. Lewis: I have made it clear that guidance will be issued and that we will ensure consistency and co-ordination across the country. I will attempt to provide the necessary detail to the Committee before it concludes its deliberations.

I wish to deal with the second part of amendment No. 261, which is about false allegations against people who work in schools, particularly teachers. We are already taking measures to deal with that. We are establishing a network of regional co-ordinators to ensure that any such allegations are dealt with fairly and quickly. We are revising and updating existing guidance to schools and LEAs about allegations and child protection, and we are also setting up a website with guidance model procedures and examples of good practice.

We believe that that will be more effective than legislation, because regulations in themselves do not offer protection. They may only offer a remedy, and the remedy of exclusion already exists for allegations that are proved false. The Government's actions achieve the objectives of the second part of amendment No. 261.

Amendment No. 262 deals with another important issue. What happens to children who are autistic or who have other special educational needs? Current legislation places a duty on local authorities and governing bodies in respect of pupils with special educational needs, including those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. If a pupil of compulsory school age remains out of school as a result of exclusion, the pupil's local education authority is under a duty to provide—these are the key words—''suitable education'' for that pupil, which is defined as

    ''efficient education suitable to [the pupil's] age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have.''

There is already a specific legislative requirement that addresses the anxieties that have been expressed about children with special needs.

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I shall refer briefly to refer to the comments made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) who has had to leave the Committee—I hope that it is not because I said anything to offend her. Autism is an important issue that has not been taken seriously enough. Society and the Government must do more to recognise the importance of the issue and the strain that autism puts upon families. Special needs put more of a strain on families when there is a collective denial that it is such a big issue. Members of the Committee may be surprised when I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who is a member of the all-party group on autism, which has recently produced a most helpful report on the subject.

The Government are committed to ending the collective denial and to tackling autism seriously. We are taking measures such as considering how to collect data on pupils with autism from 2003 or 2004; we have funded the National Autistic Society to pilot its accreditation programme in the maintained sector and we are considering how the results of that pilot can be used to spread good practice more widely. The Government's autism working group, which includes representatives of the National Autistic Society, PACE—Parents' Autism Campaign for Education—and others, will produce guidance on good practice in providing for children and young people with autistic spectrum disorder.

As to training, of the £82 million we are providing this year for special educational needs under the standards fund, £30 million is intended for training. We intend to increase that fund to £91 million next year and will suggest that local education authorities consider autism as a priority in training staff in future. The Government will not perpetuate the past denial of the problem or the insufficient status and importance of autism. In view of the legislative requirement to ensure that children with special needs are included and have access to the education that they deserve and given the Government's initiatives on autism, I hope that Opposition Members will accept that we are addressing the matters that they raised and ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

On amendment No. 341, the circumstances in which an appeals panel should be able to overrule an exclusion should be a matter for guidance rather than legislation. It is important that panels take into account the Department's guidance in taking a decision, but in the final analysis, they must remain free to take their own decisions, having considered the circumstances of the case, which, as the example quoted earlier showed, can be complex and difficult. Taking decisions on appeals against permanent exclusion is not straightforward and it would be overly constraining to make the circumstances in which an exclusion can be overruled a matter of law. If people going through the system are to feel a sense of justice, it is vital to treat every case on its merits. I reiterate my view that guidance is the most appropriate route to ensure that the aim of fairness is fulfilled.

Officials are currently consulting on draft revised guidance that has been developed in partnership with the National Association of Head Teachers, which

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proposes to make persistent bullying and carrying an offensive weapon reasons for exclusion for which the Secretary of State would normally regard it as inappropriate to reinstate. The guidance would make it clear that such behaviour would be grounds on which appeals panels should not overturn an exclusion decision. Those are tangible examples of where revised guidance can make a difference, and will support appeals panels in taking the right decisions in difficult circumstances.

It is a statutory requirement that head teachers, governing bodies, LEAs and independent panels must have regard to guidance. We believe that the guidance will address many of the concerns expressed by heads and others about the lack of clear direction for panels. In that context, it is not necessary or desirable to constrain the panel further, as the amendment proposes.

3.30 pm

I can also confirm, in relation to amendment No. 117, that we intend to keep guidance in force under the new provisions. That amendment can, therefore, be withdrawn. To respond to the question of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West concerning drugs, we hope to issue the revised draft guidance on exclusions next week. It will make it clear that in normal circumstances, the Secretary of State would regard it as inappropriate to reinstate a pupil who had been permanently excluded for misuse of a controlled drug. As far as I am aware, cannabis remains a controlled drug, and nothing that the Home Office has said contradicts that. The guidance will make it clear to appeals panels what their responsibilities will be in cases such as that referred to by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West concerning dealing or using cannabis.

 
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