Authors:Professor Gus John
Last updated:2024-02-02
A hugely inspirational education law conference
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Classroom_Pexels_Katerina Holmes
When I saw the programme for the 2023 LAG Education Law Conference, which took place on 15 November, I knew we were in for something special. The fantastic speakers and panel chairs did not disappoint.
Education law and practice has expanded exponentially since the main challenge facing schools was the adoption and delivery of the national curriculum, and with it the preoccupation of successive governments with raising standards and improving schooling outcomes. But schools were and are constantly having to adapt to increasing demands from a succession of education secretaries and the stamp each insists upon placing on education law. Often, however, neither students, parents, nor the government itself can be assured that school managers and governing bodies are acting in compliance with the law, or even with statutory guidance, and giving each child their educational entitlement.
Furthermore, the majority of parents are befuddled by those tranches of arcane legislation and how they relate to one another and to other areas of domestic law, for example, the Equality Act 2010 and the requirement that schools comply with the public sector equality duty (PSED) at s149 of that Act. Indeed, many parents have neither the knowledge of the law and government guidelines, nor the skills, competence and confidence to hold schools to account and ensure that their children’s rights as enshrined in law are not violated. The academisation programme of the past couple of decades has made it especially difficult for parents to seek redress for schools’ violation of their children’s education rights, especially when they find a body of experts, invariably including lawyers, lined up against them at governors disciplinary committee meetings and notably in independent review panel sessions and SEND (special educational needs and disability) tribunal hearings.
This, broadly speaking, is the terrain in which education lawyers increasingly operate, as they seek to have schools’ practices reviewed by judges or examined by tribunals.
At this year’s LAG conference, an impressive body of education law practitioners shared with one another, and with bodies advocating on behalf of children and families (SOS!SEN, Coram Children’s Legal Centre, the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) – of which I am the chair of trustees – and Just for Kids Law), their experiences of taking cases through the courts and tribunals.
It was instructive to hear presentations from Angela Jackman KC (Hon), Steve Broach and Nicola Braganza KC on education law cases of the past 12 months, including ones where schools were challenged for their failure to engage with the PSED when deciding to exclude students with protected characteristics, for example: not taking into account the likely impact of exclusion on Black children, who are known to be disproportionately overrepresented in exclusion statistics, with the consequences of exclusion leading to ruining of their life chances; and schools refusing to admit students with complex needs identified in an education, health and care plan on the grounds that doing so would impact adversely on the education of other children.
Amanda Weston KC, Sarah Hannett KC, Ollie Persey and Helen Gill provided a fascinating account of how courts deal with challenges to the way schools and local authorities discharge their duties owed to children in need and looked after children, especially when local authorities operate in ‘corporate parenting’ mode in respect of looked after children, pursuant to the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
One of many highlights of the day comprised the presentations by Sabrina Simpson, Dan Rosenberg and Nadia O’Mara on challenging exclusions and exclusionary practices. Those presentations raised fundamental questions about schools’ commitment to children’s rounded development and not just their academic attainment. The latitude with which schools apply behaviour and discipline guidelines when they use exclusions as a management tool often fails to have regard to the complex needs of children, whether assessed or not. Where schools operate 'zero-tolerance’ policies, the inflexibility with which they deal with children’s infractions often leads to the exclusion being illegal. It is precisely in situations such as those that parents are disadvantaged and find themselves ill-equipped to challenge schools’ practices.
I was pleased to take part in the conference myself, speaking with Angela Jackman about my many decades of challenging school exclusions, especially of Black Caribbean boys and my experience as the first Black director of education in Britain. I gave an account of my activism as a chief officer in local government and an equality and human rights campaigner.
All in all, the conference was hugely inspirational and, for me, it underscored the need for a child-centred and children’s health approach to schooling and education that affirms:
every child is a learner who matters;
every child is a learner with rights and entitlements;
every child is a learner with needs (emotional, social and developmental, as well as academic);
some needs act as a barrier to learning, self-development and the development of social skills and emotional literacy;
some needs are complex and require specialist intervention;
every child has an entitlement to education, irrespective of those needs and the behaviours to which they may give rise; and
children’s right to education cannot be forfeited on account of their poor behaviour, or their non-compliance with codes of conduct or policies relating to school uniform.
Surely, the role of schooling and education is first and foremost to humanise society?