A new report has called for reform of the process by which schools permanently exclude students after suggesting that school teachers have an inconsistent understanding of their Equality Act duties and that Independent Review Panels (IRPs) lack the power to remedy unlawful exclusions.
The Government-commissioned Timpson review last year prompted all-party law reform and human rights organisation, JUSTICE, to study the process after it raised concerns about the quality of decision-making and the prevalence of informal exclusions and so-called ‘off-rolling’.
On the back of the Timpson review’s findings, JUSTICE’s Challenging School Exclusionsreport examines the processes currently used to make, confirm and review a decision to permanently exclude a pupil in England and the Independent Review Panels (IRPs) who are the second stage of review.
Professor Richard de Friend, Chair of the Working Party, said: “it is vital that exclusion decisions meet all the required statutory standards. We have concluded that at present we cannot be confident that they do because of the weaknesses we have identified in the current procedures”.
To tackle these issues, the human rights organisation suggested 29 separate recommendations for reform, including:
- More robust systems and processes in schools prior to exclusion, including mandatory training on the law governing exclusion powers for all teachers in leadership positions; more consistent consideration of unmet needs, particularly special educational and health needs, prior to permanent exclusion; and better communication between the school, the pupil and the parents/carers by meeting prior to exclusion and listening to the family’s side.
- Introducing a new role of the specialist “Independent Reviewer” to conduct an investigative review into individual exclusion decisions, replacing the first stage review currently conducted by the governing board of the school, which the Working Party concluded is ineffective and lacking independence.
- Transforming the inadequate second stage of review, currently before Independent Review Panels (IRPs). The Working Party proposes the IRPs be replaced by a new First-tier Tribunal (Education), which would have powers the IRPs do not, including remaking the decision afresh, directing mandatory reinstatement, wiping a child’s record of the exclusion and requiring the pupil to be allowed to sit an exam.
- Improving the design, content and availability of guidance on the exclusion review process to make it coherent and accessible to parents/carers and pupils; signposting to, and improving the availability of, independent legal advisors and support services.
- Enhancing awareness by professionals within the review process of how to effectively communicate with parents/carers and pupils and include them within the process, including making reasonable adjustments for those with additional needs or vulnerabilities.
Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, said: “Every child has a fundamental right to an education. This report shows that the current system does not go far enough to protect children from unlawful interference with this right, nor does it provide swift and effective remedies when such interference does take place.
“The report boldly rethinks the process of school exclusions and how they are challenged, proposing a system which is procedurally fair, efficient, robust, accessible and accommodating of the needs of all children."
According to Department for Education figures, between 2011/12 and 2017/18 permanent and fixed period school exclusions have grown a small amount year on year.
In the 2017/18 school year, the rate of permanent exclusion was 0.10% - the fixed period exclusion rate was 5.08%.
While low, the JUSTICE report commented that the rate of permanent exclusions in England far outstrips Wales and Scotland.