Consider the following scenario which was recounted to me and in which for obvious reasons, names and identities have been changed.

Just before the long summer break, the head teacher of the Anytown Comprehensive School contacts his Chair of Governors and asks him to convene a governors exclusion panel. The head explains that pending a determination by the panel he has temporarily excluded Jane, a 14-year-old student who is due to sit her GCSE exams at the end of the next academic year. He briefly explains that Jane has been recorded on CCTV assaulting another student, Emily.

A three governors panel is convened and a hearing is arranged. It is attended by the head, Jane, her mother and her younger brother, Ben, who also attends Anytown. A representative of the local authority’s education department maintains a watching brief.

Headed by the chair of governors, the panel conducts the 90 minute hearing quite judiciously. It is not overly formal and all interested parties are given ample opportunity to speak. The chair does not dominate proceedings and allows her colleagues to participate fully. The local authority representative asks some pertinent questions but maintains a neutral stance throughout.

The head speaks first. He recounts that a few days before there was 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) clearly shows 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 the evidence is there for all to see and ultimately the panel ratifies the Head’s view that a permanent exclusion is warranted.

In addressing the panel the head maintains that prior to the day in question, Jane and Emily had been quite good friends. He continues, stating that earlier that day, Jane had discovered that Emily had been “chatting up” her boyfriend and that she overreacted.

Jane’s mother who argues very strongly against the exclusion disputes this. Backed by her daughter, she suggests that the head’s historical viewpoint is misplaced. She very emphatically claims that Jane and Emily have never been friends and that the incident in question is one in a long line of altercations and spats. She also maintains that many of these have been instigated by Emily and that in the past her daughter has been the victim of bullying. She asserts she has previously voiced concerns to the school’s head of pastoral care whom she maintains is “well aware” of the history of the matter. She does not deny the significance of the assault and suggests that both girls should be subject to rigid disciplinary measures but not total exclusion. Jane’s mother also points out that her daughter’s academic prospects will be adversely affected and that Ben, who has learning difficulties, relies on his sister a great deal.

The Head states that he fully appreciates the implications of the permanent exclusion and that his decision was not an easy one but maintains that there is no truth in the claim that previous incidents have been reported to the school. He refers to what he sees as Jane’s previous very poor disciplinary and attendance records and states that in the school’s view, Emily whom he refers to as “scarred for life” has an unblemished record. He also maintains that given the seriousness of the assault, “adjournment is not an option”.

Given the current ferocity of the assault which is not denied and even though two of its number have reservations, the panel feels that it has no choice but to ratify the head’s decision. When the decision is written up, one member of the panel insists that her “minority” concerns about lack of previous school intervention are formally recorded and she strongly contends that notwithstanding the decision, the governing body should direct the head to conduct an internal review before the start of the summer holidays.

After the hearing, Jane’s mother confirms that she intends to take matters further and there are dark mutterings about appealing to the local authority, contacting solicitors and writing to the government. The head says “c’est la vie” and the chair of governors perhaps rather misguidedly consoles herself by thinking that if asked, the local authority will be able to fully review matters.

Arguably, 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? Does 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?

Many, some would say more enlightened schools, make full use of mediation in such instances or at the very least arrange for a member of staff with no previous involvement to bring disputing students together to consider some conflict resolution options. Some schools very successfully use peer mediation which invariably has good outcomes.

In the present instance, could the school 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 the very unfortunate incident outlined above could have been avoided.

In mediation the history of cases such as Jane and Emily’s can be neutrally and very effectively explored. All affected or interested parties including head teachers and heads of pastoral care can be included in the process. Mediation works even in difficult school situations.