Two boys are expelled from school for bringing in an airgun, but are allowed back on appeal. How typical is this? Are independent appeals panels too soft, or is it rule-breaking children who get a bad deal? By Judith Judd
Teachers' threats to strike over disruptive children are a recurring feature of the educational scene. The latest case is that of two 14-year- old boys expelled from the Yorkshire Martyrs School in Bradford for bringing an airgun into school. Members of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers are refusing to teach the boys, whose expulsion was overturned by an independent appeals panel.

Their protest surfaced during the teacher unions' Easter conferences, where debates on exclusions generated as much emotional heat as those on Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools and the profession's bogeyman. Even the National Union of Teachers, traditionally of the view that unruly children are more sinned against than sinning, backed the principle of industrial action in the toughest cases.

Yet the high-profile conflicts which make the headlines, usually because a head or a school's decision has been overruled by an appeals panel, offer a highly misleading view of what is happening on the ground. Government figures show that cases such as those of the Yorkshire Martyrs are the exception rather than the rule.

There are two stages to the appeals process. First the parents may appeal to the governors over a head's decision permanently to exclude a child. Then, if the governors back the head, they may go to an independent appeals panel appointed by, but independent of, the authority.

Permanent exclusions are running at around 13,000 a year. There are no overall figures for governors' panels but the most recent figures for appeals to independent panels (1994-5) show that they numbered only 1,066. Of those, only 185 were successful.

And it is parents, not teachers, who are the underdogs in the exclusions battle, according to research from London University's Institute of Education. Dr David Gillborn found that parents were often not given the information they needed about appeals and that schools sometimes failed to tell them of their rights.

He also found that schools were inconsistent about their reasons for expulsion. Only just over a quarter of permanent exclusions were for physical aggression - bullying or attacks on other teachers and pupils. Some pupils, he said, were being permanently excluded for comparatively minor breaches of discipline.

Judy Wellington, a London youth worker, did not appeal against her 14- year-old son's permanent exclusion because she felt the gesture would have been pointless. Jawara got into trouble when a fellow pupil asked him to ask for some money from a boy and take it to another boy. Then he started asking the same boy for money himself. When the school found out, it called in the police. Jawara was charged and placed under a supervision order.

Ms Wellington says: "I was summoned to school to see the head, the governors and teachers. I could tell straightaway it was a foregone conclusion. He wasn't achieving and they wanted him out. I believe that the other boy who had taken more money was kept in the system because he was a high achiever." Ms Wellington has since sat on a governors' appeal panel at a primary school herself and remains disillusioned with the process. "I know that prior to the meeting the governors discuss their course of action, so that when the parent comes in the decisions are already in place."

Other governors and members of independent appeals panels challenge Ms Wellington's belief that the result of appeals is generally a foregone conclusion.

Joan Sallis, governors' agony aunt and president of the Campaign for State Education, says that exclusion hearings are the job governors hate most. She believes that all exclusion cases should be reviewed by a panel of governors, whether or not parents choose to appeal. Children, she argues, should always be represented by someone. "I think it is very dangerous to let professionals have it all their own way. Schools present highly selective dossiers of their case - you cannot blame them for that - and there ought to be an advocate for the child."

Members of independent appeals panels emphasise that they reach their decisions only after a careful study of all the evidence and after listening to everyone involved, including the pupil. Their job is to establish whether the pupil was responsible for the behaviour of which he or she is accused and whether the head's response was appropriate.

Brian Davies, member of an appeals panel in Kent, says all panels feel a responsibility to parents and young people. "But I don't believe any head teacher excludes a pupil lightly. What you so often find by looking at the incident log is that the head and staff have been very tolerant. It is rare for us to override the head."

Yet there is unhappiness among heads as well as parents about the present appeals system. John Brandon, head of Mark Rutherford School in Bedford, had his decision to expel two boys for smoking cannabis overruled by a panel, even though he was acting in support of a drugs policy agreed with the school's parents. One of the boys returned successfully to school but the other had to be permanently excluded again only a month later, for sexual harassment.

Mr Brandon says: "In the interests of natural justice, appeals panels must exist. To assume that we get it right every time, especially when we are under a lot of pressure, is asking too much, but panels need to be more accountable." He believes the appeals panel in his case would not have acted in the way that it did had the names of its members been published and if it had been required to make a summary of its findings available over the signature of its chairman.

Heads are also concerned about apparent inconsistencies between panels. They say some will back permanent exclusion for continual disruptive behaviour even if no single serious incident has occurred. Others will not. The difference in schools' own policies on drugs leads to some pupils being expelled for using drugs while others are expelled only for dealing in them.

John Dunford of Durham Johnston School in Durham says there should be a "totting up" system for less serious incidents which are wearing for teachers and fellow-pupils, and detailed national guidelines for panels.

The need to get it right is starkly illustrated by the effect of permanent exclusion on pupils such as Jawara Wellington. Jawara, now 19, never went back to school after his exclusion. He was given two hours' tuition a week. He has never again been in trouble with the law. His mother says: "He had no real awareness that what he did was criminal. It was like a prank. He felt rejected. He still goes into terrible depression. He puts up a barrier between himself and learning. He has no self-esteem." He has signed on for a course at a local college but drifts in and out of that and of part-time jobs.

Joan Sallis believes the answer to the conflicting needs of teachers, the pupil and the school as a whole lies not in more exclusions but in helping teachers to deal with unruly children. "Some teachers feature in exclusion cases more than others, particularly in verbal abuse cases. Experienced teachers know how to put a stop to verbal abuse."

Twenty years ago, she recalls, the Taylor committee concluded that exclusion was not an appropriate punishment. If pupils were anti-school, the committee argued, it was simply a form of legalised truancy. If they were sorry, they should not be punished.

She accepts that times have changed. "But, in my heart of hearts, I don't believe in exclusion"n