The child cried and begged to stay

School exclusions are down but some schools are still ignoring government advice when they throw children out
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I am a parent governor at my child's secondary school and last autumn myself and two others were asked to become members of a newly formed exclusion committee. These committees have been established on the instructions of the Government in order to help reduce the number of children excluded from school. Previously, head teachers had the power to exclude pupils with no internal review of their decisions.

I am a parent governor at my child's secondary school and last autumn myself and two others were asked to become members of a newly formed exclusion committee. These committees have been established on the instructions of the Government in order to help reduce the number of children excluded from school. Previously, head teachers had the power to exclude pupils with no internal review of their decisions.

According to reports last week, these committees would appear to be doing their job - exclusions are down. But I would argue that all is still far from well if my experience in a recent case is in any way typical.

We were asked to review the head teacher's decision to permanently exclude an 11-year-old boy who had been responsible for injuring two other children. The incident had happened one play time when three friends found an old pencil sharpener on the floor and started playing with it.

One boy prodded another boy in the hand with the blade, with no initial ill effect, and then into the hand of the third child. This child was cut. The boy who had wielded the blade was horrified by what had happened and ran for help from a teacher. The first child was then also found to have been cut and both children were taken to hospital.

The first thing that struck me about the process was the amount of work and teacher-time that it involves. A large number of children were interviewed and several members of staff provided written statements of their actions. The parents in this case also put together papers and letters of support. During the 10 days preceding the committee meeting, I received a total of 30 sheets of A4 paper to read at home.

For the first 45 minutes of the three- hour meeting, the head teacher read the accounts out loud to us. He said that the boy was bright and able and generally well-behaved, and had a good school career ahead of him - in another school. The boy, he believed, should be permanently excluded in order for him to understand the seriousness of his actions before starting elsewhere.

By contrast, the mother presented a well-informed case, referring to Department for Education and Employment guidance and the current thinking on exclusions. She spoke about the effect of exclusion on children and the difficulty in finding suitable alternative education for them. She also examined the reliability and the difficulty of obtaining evidence from children. Her own work was with excluded children so she spoke from experience. She wept throughout her presentation.

The child himself came in for a few minutes. He cried and apologised and begged to be allowed to stay at the school with his friends.

The offence we were looking at was serious, but had not been planned or carried out maliciously. The incident had begun in a good-natured and playful way - but had developed into a stupid game in which the child had injured two of his friends.

Both the teacher involved and the head teacher of the primary school the boy had left six months earlier wrote and said the boy was sensible, mature and helpful, and had never been involved in violence. They viewed what had happened as an unfortunate accident and asked that the boy be given a second chance.

The local education authority representative drew our attention to the most recent DfEE guidance. It says that, in general, pupils should not be permanently excluded for a first offence, but that other strategies should be tried. Exclusion for a first-time offender is only justified in very serious cases and if the welfare and education of other pupils would be put at risk by the child remaining in the school.

We governors agreed that the offence was very serious. But we also agreed that the boy was unlikely to present a risk to other pupils in the future.

To me, this meant he did not meet the criteria for exclusion and consequently we could not uphold the decision. When I pointed this out to my colleagues, they became uncomfortable - they did not like to go against the head teacher's ruling.

The school in question is a church school. One of my two co-governors was a priest and the other a pillar of the church. In the hope of finding some common ground, I pointed out that as a church school, Christianity in action is a strand that runs through our code of conduct and our disciplinary policy.

I spoke about the strength in the story of the prodigal son - with its message about forgiveness. While the priest agreed in principle, he countered by saying he had to think of the other pupils. I reminded him about the good shepherd who left the 99 sheep to find the lost one. He did not feel it applied in this case.

The vote was two to one. When I pointed out that our decision would be hard to justify because the DfEE criteria were not met, they said they would interpret the reference to "damage to other pupils" in their own way. They would take it to mean, not that this boy would physically damage others again, but that other children would be damaged if they did not understand that violence has serious consequences.

There are two aspects of the meeting that really concern me. The first was my colleagues' feeling that we should not go against the wishes of the head teacher. If the governors see their job as merely rubber-stamping the head teacher's decision then there is no point in having such a lengthy and time-consuming process.

My second concern was our failure to apply any Christian or humanitarian values to the case. I would like to think that as a society we still have a fundamental belief in forgiveness and compassion, and that we offer people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and have a second chance. Even in the adult criminal justice system we offer scope for reform and rehabilitation. To deprive a child of that chance because "messages need to be given" to him and to others seems very unjust.

Perhaps governors are not the best people to review exclusions. They often feel closely linked to the school and supportive of the head teacher. If they are to do an effective job there is a need for specialised training in order to help them understand their role and the relevant DfEE guidance. If this does not happen, then the Government may well fail to meet its target of a one-third reduction in exclusions by the year 2002.

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