Dean is 13 years old. He’s in a drab meeting room with his mum and eight other adults. Six he doesn’t know, two are his former teacher and headteacher. All of them are talking about him.
They are talking about how complicated he is. How difficult he can be. How the whole school will be better off without him in it.
Dean has special educational needs in the form of communication difficulties, severe anxiety and depression. He doesn’t speak much. But he understands people perfectly well.
As the adults are talking about him. He’s getting upset. He doesn’t say so though, he looks at his hands, fiddling with his thumbs. He’s trying to tune out the people around him and the things they are saying about him. He is only thinking one thing, “I want to go home”.
The adults are talking about how many fights Dean has been getting into. The adults are saying that he’s been assaulting other students. Dean wants to tell the adults that he’s been bullied at school, but when he starts to talk the adults say that, “it’s not your turn to make a statement”. Dean is embarrassed, his confidence knocked, his anxiety and disquiet grow louder. He returns to fiddling his thumbs.
Suddenly he’s snapped out of his stupor. One of the adults has asked him to answer some questions. The adult asks whether he knows why he’s there. Dean says it’s because he’s been expelled. The adult asks if he wants to come back to school. Dean shrugs, he’s not really thinking about it. He won’t mention the bullying again.
The adult asks if Dean is sorry. Dean stays quiet, staring at his thumbs.
The adult asks again. Dean doesn’t answer.
Two days later, Dean gets a letter from the adults, thanking him for attending the governors’ review of his permanent exclusion from school. It explains that “in accordance with the school’s policies and relevant statutory guidance” the governors have decided that Dean’s “exclusion will be upheld”.
They explain that they acknowledge there were problems with Dean’s special educational needs provision in the run up to the exclusion. However, the governors say that Dean’s complex needs make it impossible for him to go back to the school. In addition, they explain that Dean refused to apologise during the hearing, leading the governors to think that he would likely get into more fights in the future.
That was the last time Dean went to school in nearly a year.
Dean’s story is common in the world of school exclusion challenges. It is the inevitable consequence of taking a complicated and legalistic process, making a family face it alone with a maximum of three weeks’ warning, and making the arbitrators of that process the school’s own governors – a group of people with a vested interest in supporting the headteacher’s decision to exclude someone.
To make things worse, none of the eight adults in the room – the headteacher, another teacher, three governors, local authority representative and clerk – have any training on how to conduct disciplinary proceedings involving children, and none of them have any training on the relevant law.
The result is inescapable; a messy, stressful, ineffective process in which the vast majority of exclusions are rubber stamped through, despite nearly half going on to be found flawed by the independent, trained appeal bodies known as independent review panels.
Imagine taking Dean’s story from the beginning but giving Dean and his mum the benefit of a professional advisor. An advisor could tell Dean what to expect during the hearing. An advisor could speak with Dean about his bullying and speak with his mother about his missing special educational needs support. An advisor could then speak for both of them in the hearing or support the young person to speak for themselves. This would ensure that the governors had the information they need, without putting Dean through a bewildering and unnecessary ordeal by questioning him in a room full of people he doesn’t know. An advisor could ask the right questions of the school, ensuring that some oversight is exercised by someone outside of the school structure. An advisor can bring experience, something the school already has from past exclusions.
Advisors and advocates are vital if school exclusion challenges are to deliver any kind of access to justice for families. However, there is no funding for this work making it very difficult for families to access support.
This is why it is a great step forward that Just for Kids Law have been able to partner with Fieldfisher Solicitors to make advice and representation available for families facing exclusion from school in Manchester and Birmingham. Fieldfisher’s lawyers work pro bono under the supervision of Just for Kids Law’s education specialists to provide families with full legal support throughout the exclusion challenge process.
This is the only legal service available to support families through exclusion challenges in these cities and represents a milestone in expanding provision of support outside of London. This service facilitates access to justice at a critical moment in a young person’s life.
If you are a family in the West Midlands or Greater Manchester facing exclusion, or an organisation working with young people facing exclusion, you can make a referral to this service at: http://justforkidslaw.org/refer
Alex Temple is a Public Lawyer and Policy Officer at Just for Kids Law focusing on school exclusions.