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‘Samuel’s mum was cheering when we got the news’
Too many children are excluded from school without a proper hearing. As Frankie Shama’s Advocacy Year comes to an end, he recalls how having an advocate made all the difference to one 12-year-old
One thing I have learned during my year as a Just for Kids Law trainee advocate is that overturning a pupil’s exclusion from school is not easy. Head teachers are given a wide margin of discretion in making decisions, and parents rarely have the knowledge to use Department of Education guidelines and the law to challenge decisions.
Under the guidelines, children should only be excluded if they have breached, or persistently breached, the school’s behaviour policy, and exclusion should be used as a last resort. I’ve seen these guidelines ignored many times, even when governing bodies have been reminded of their legal responsibilities.
I’ve also seen how exclusions are not just a result of difficulties experienced by a child, but a precursor to further difficulties. These range from an increased likelihood of being involved with the criminal justice system, to unemployment later in life, due to a lack of support in obtaining suitable grades at school.
This is where Just for Kids Law comes in – or tries to.
Samuel is a considerate and lively 12-year old. He rarely stops talking, always wants to tell you what he has been up to, and is a complete joy to work with. He was diagnosed with ADHD in March this year, and has a variety of behavior characteristics which make it difficult for him to stay focused during lessons. He was moved to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for a period of three-weeks, and when his behavior didn’t improve, was permanently excluded from his original school. He was also accused of attacking another pupil outside the PRU.
Samuel, supported by his mum, wanted to challenge his exclusion. They didn’t think the school had given him enough support to meet his complex needs. Also, far from being the attacker, Samuel had been the victim of a violent physical and verbal assault, which ended with him being pinned against a wall, and punched multiple times in the face and stomach.
Members of the public and police officers had intervened during the attack, and the police took Samuel home to his mum. Despite his injuries, he didn’t want to press charges against the other boy. The next morning, his mum phoned the school to explain why her son wouldn’t be in.
A few hours later, the school called back to say Samuel had been excluded for fighting and because of his persistent disruptive behavior. A letter confirming the exclusion followed. The school had made its decision without taking a statement from Samuel, or investigating the incident.
With Just for Kids Law’s help, Samuel’s mum asked for a hearing with the school governing body, where he would have the chance to put his side of events. In the meantime, we secured evidence to challenge the school’s version of events: a police incident number, a medical report, and a statement from Samuel, about what had happened.
As youth advocates, we are able to prepare written and oral submissions, and use the law in a way parents find difficult when advocating on behalf of their own child. In Samuel’s case, a large part of my support was to help him advocate for himself. Often, I will also speak on behalf of a young person at a governors’ hearing, but – with careful encouragement beforehand and with his mum and me by his side – Samuel was able to speak for himself. He really rose to the occasion, explaining to a room full of skeptical adults what had happened, and why he thought the exclusion was so unjust. My legal submissions are one thing, but it was incredibly powerful for the governors to hear directly from Samuel himself.
The government says exclusions should be a last resort. Despite this – and despite knowing he was being assessed for ADHD – Samuel’s school had excluded him without having organised a multi-agency assessment for an Education, Health Care Plan (ECHP), which would have considered his needs and put together a package for meeting them. At the governors’ hearing, the school listed a variety of strategies it claimed had been put in place – about a third of which Samuel said had actually been implemented.
Despite knowing we had a strong case legally, I was not optimistic that Samuel would be reinstated. I’ve seen too many cases where governing bodies have refused to budge, despite all the evidence – meaning the case has had to go to the next stage, an Independent Review Panel (IRP).
However, this time was different. The submissions we had presented and Samuel’s heartfelt words must have struck home, as the governors overturned the head’s decision and reinstated him.
His mum was overjoyed, literally cheering when we got the news. She knows, however, that this is just the beginning and there may still be battles ahead to ensure that Samuel gets the support he needs from the school that his ADHD requires.
I’ve seen enough in my year as an advocate to know that it is still rare for a school to have the courage to overturn a bad decision. Unless there is a systemic shift, many excluded young people will continue to be failed by the very education system that is supposed to be protecting and nurturing them.
Even so, as I reach the end of my time as part of Advocacy Year, Samuel’s success feels like a small but significant victory – and confirmation of the difference having an advocate can make to a young person’s future.
Frankie Shama is a Just for Kids Law trainee youth advocate and part of its Advocacy Year scheme.