Recent press reports suggest that the number of school exclusions has hit an all-time high. For example, a front-page article dated 1st September 2018 in The Guardian stated: “Revealed: dozens of schools excluding one in five pupils”. In the light of this consider the following scenario.
Just before the recent long summer break, the Head Teacher of the Anytown Secondary School contacted his Chair of Governors and asked her to convene a governors’ exclusion panel. The Head explained that pending a determination by the panel he had temporarily excluded Jane, a 14-year-old student who was due to sit her GCSE exams at the end of the next academic year. He briefly explained that Jane had been recorded on CCTV assaulting another student, Emily.
A three-governor panel was convened and a hearing was arranged. It was attended by the Head, Jane, her mother and her younger brother, Ben, who is also an Anytown student. A representative of the local authority’s education department maintained a watching brief.
Guided by the governors’ clerk, the exclusion panel conducted the 90-minute hearing quite judiciously. The chair did not dominate proceedings and allowed her colleagues to participate fully. The local authority representative asks some pertinent questions but maintained a neutral stance throughout.
The Head spoke first. He recounted that a few days before there had been an altercation in the girls’ cloakroom which took place in full view of the CCTV camera. The 30 second extract viewed by the panel (whilst Ben is not present) quite clearly showed Jane pushing Emily to the ground and then kicking her 15 or 16 times in the ribs, groin and abdomen. Fortunately, Emily was not badly injured but in one sense “the evidence was there for all to see” and ultimately the panel ratified the Head’s view that a permanent exclusion was warranted.
In addressing the panel, the Head maintained that prior to the day in question, Jane and Emily had been quite good friends. He continued stating that earlier that day, Jane had discovered that Emily had been “chatting up” her boyfriend and that she overreacted.
Jane’s mother who argued very strongly against the exclusion, disputed this. Backed by her daughter, she guested that the Head’s viewpoint was misplaced. She very emphatically claimed that Jane and Emily had never been friends and that the incident in question was one in a long line of altercations and spats. She also contended that many of these had been instigated by Emily and that in the past her daughter has been the victim of bullying. She asserted that she had previously voiced concerns to the school’s head of pastoral care whom she maintained was “well aware” of the history of the matter. She did not deny the fact of the assault and suggested that short of total exclusion both girls should be subject to rigid disciplinary measures. Jane’s mother also pointed out that her daughter’s academic prospects would be adversely affected and that Ben, who has mild learning difficulties, has always relied on his sister.
The Head responded stating that he fully appreciated the implications of the permanent exclusion. He maintained his decision had not been an easy one to take but that there was no truth in the claim that previous incidents had been reported to the school. He referred to what he saw as Jane’s previous poor disciplinary record and stated that Emily had been “scarred for life” and had an unblemished record. He also maintained that given the seriousness of the assault, “adjournment was not an option”.
Given the apparent ferocity of the assault and even though two of its number had reservations, the panel felt that it had no choice but to ratify the Head’s decision. When the decision was written up, one member of the panel insisted that her “minority” concerns about lack of previous school intervention were formally recorded and she strongly contended that even though a final decision had been made, the governing body should direct the Head to conduct an internal review before the start of the summer holidays and provide a written report.
After the hearing, Jane’s mother confirmed that she would take matters further and mentioned the possibility of appealing to the local authority, contacting solicitors and writing to the government. The Head said “c’est la vie” and the chair of governors perhaps rather misguidedly consoled herself by reflecting that if asked, the local authority would be able to review matters and if it felt appropriate, overturn her panel decision.
Whilst one accepts that school discipline has to be maintained and that a competent Head teacher’s discretion in such matters should not be questioned routinely, in this particular case, there appears to have been an element of neglect and oversight. Accordingly, one questions whether the Head had been keeping his finger on the pulse. The assault on Emily was serious but was it really a one off or was it part of a wider pattern of events? Did the principle of “no smoke without fire” apply here? The school may point to the hearing being very well conducted but even though justice was seen to be done, was it actually done?
The clerk to the governors, who is paid by the hour and was remunerated accordingly or attending the hearing, took minutes and then drafted and disseminated the panel’s decision. The appeal board hearing took up a half day of the Head’s working week and three teachers who know Jane and Emily well were excused from their regular duties in order to observe the hearing.
It will be seen that although the costs of the local authority representative are borne by her employers, the total cost of the whole exercise is quite considerable. Two members of the exclusion board claim modest travelling expenses which had to be approved by the chair of governors and the clerk and then passed on to the school bursar for processing and payment. A not inconsiderable amount of local authority time has since been taken up with finding Jane a new school and I suspect that the real cost of the exercise would easily amount to something in the region of £1500.00.
In this instance could the Head not have brought Jane and Emily together at an earlier point and used a mediator to help them sort through any disagreements they may have had? Could they then have reached an agreement that they were both happy to sign up to? Because mediation is a confidential process, Jane and Emily would have had the opportunity to communicate with one another without being judged by their teachers or peers and who knows, perhaps with appropriate assurances being given, a final exclusion could have been avoided.
In practice, whatever the circumstances and even in circumstances where an impartial outsider might think that matters are “cut and dried”, exclusions do not reflect well on schools. Jane will be educated at another school in circumstances where she may feel she has not been heard. Wrongdoing in schools cannot be tolerated but in reality, although the chair of governors did her best, it is arguable there was an element of fait accomplis about the whole process and that the issues were not properly explored.
If a mediation had been arranged, the background to Jane and Emily’s case could have been neutrally and effectively explored. All the parties could have been included in the process. A case such as this could quite easily have been dealt with in mediation in half a day at considerably less cost. A half day ASM PLUS mediation would cost £500.00 plus VAT.
Even in quite difficult circumstances such as those outlined above mediation a 90% success rate. It certainly does not follow that Jane’s exclusion would have been avoided and one would certainly not expect the seriousness of the assault to be glossed over. However, in a mediation all those affected including Emily would have been given an opportunity to contribute. The confidential nature of mediation means that in cases such as this it is much more likely that the parties will open up. Parties such as Jane and Emily will very quickly appreciate that mediation is not used to hide or cover up any wrongdoing and given that it tends to bring the best out of people it is rather more likely that genuine apologies would be forthcoming and workable solutions could be agreed.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.