You would be forgiven for thinking that decisions that can have a fundamental impact on the future of a pupil would be taken with the utmost care, with the closest attention to detail and due process. After all, we are talking about the futures of children. On top of that, there isn’t a decision letter produced by a school that doesn’t lament making a choice that it knows will be ‘upsetting for you and your family’ before insisting ‘with a heavy heart’ that it was a matter of ‘last resort’.
In practice, too many pupils are permanently excluded in haste, with a disregard for even the most basic principles of fairness and a contempt for children or their parents who dare do anything other than humbly accept their fate. Modelled on the Housing and Immigration Group (HIG), the School Inclusion Project (SIP) is a partnership between Garden Court Chambers
, the Law Centres Network
, Just for Kids Law
and the Communities Empowerment Network
that aims to provide a bulwark against persistent injustices that, by their nature, are shielded from the public eye. Like HIG, SIP aims to bring together front-line groups, NGOs and claimant lawyers to facilitate collaboration on individual cases and systemic issues.
This is by no means the first time that a group has been formed to advocate for the rights and interests of children at risk of exclusion and their families. The history of such groups is long and demands respect. The purpose of this initiative is to harness that experience, to bring together lawyers, advisers, educators and campaigners – including stalwarts at the Communities Empowerment Network, co-founded by Professor Gus John in 1999, and the legal team at Just for Kids Law – in the hope of improving access to legal advice and representation, and challenging unfairness and systemic discrimination in exclusions in a coordinated, sustainable and strategic way , to build and advance upon what has been undertaken before.
That systemic discrimination exists in exclusion decision-making is now beyond credible argument, even on the government’s own statistics
, last updated in July 2020. The numbers of school exclusions, both temporary and permanent, have been increasing for a number of years. With wearying familiarity, it is Black children, children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and children with special educational needs and disabilities who are over-represented in their number.
In November 2019, a JUSTICE working party called for ‘wholesale reform’ in ‘a new model for challenging school exclusions’ (‘JUSTICE launches report A new model for challenging school exclusions
’, JUSTICE news release, 11 November 2019). Among its 29 recommendations, the working party called for the creation of an ‘independent reviewer’ of individual exclusions to replace a governing body review mechanism that is ‘ineffective and lacking independence’. It also recommended that a new First-tier Tribunal (Education) replace the ‘inadequate’ second stage of review currently conducted by the independent review panel (IRP) system.
More recently, in collaboration with the Centre for Social Justice
, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Exclusions and Alternative Provision has now been formed, in recognition of the ‘bleak’ realities facing many excluded children, with ‘[j]ust 4.3 per cent of pupils in alternative providers pass[ing] English and maths GCSEs, and almost half … not progress[ing] to a sustained destination’. It also noted that the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline continues to sweep up an eyewatering number of children, with ‘58 per cent of young adults in prison … permanently excluded at school’.
It is against that background that SIP hopes to play some part in reducing and reversing school exclusions. Its members will offer advice and representation at all stages of the school exclusion process, and seek to secure public funding for this important legal work. The most recent authority on the law and practice in this area remains R (CR) v Independent Review Panel of the London Borough of Lambeth
 EWHC 2461 (Admin). In addition to that, the existing statutory guidance on exclusions
, while comprehensive in some respects, still contains gaps. The need for authoritative statements of law is clear, and SIP hopes to improve access to justice, identify appropriate test cases to definitively fill those gaps and secure due process guarantees for children and parents subject to what, for many, is a life-changing procedure.
Ultimately, SIP aims to do its part to defend the interests of the large numbers of – often vulnerable – children being left out and left behind, whom the system, including the current legal system, is failing.
More information about SIP, which officially launches on 20 July 2021 can be found on the Garden Court website
The authors are members of the School Inclusion Project.