Excluding children from school can have serious and unpredictable effects on their subsequent development. If the child or his or her parents feel that the exclusion was unfair, then usually their only remedy is to appeal the decision to the school’s Governing Body.
This is where the Schools Exclusion Project comes in. Volunteers from City Law School act pro bono as student representatives. We advise parents on their child’s case, assess their legal position, and represent them at their appeal.
Representatives first attend a training day run by barristers from Matrix Chambers, City’s own Dr Dan Wilsher, and the Project’s Student Directors. Training covers both the law relevant to exclusions, as found in the Education Act 2011 and a Guide issued by the Department for Education, and practical advice as how to manage a case.
One of the best things about the Project is that, as representatives, we are required to run our cases ourselves. When the application from a child’s parents is received by the Directors, they first check it to make sure it is in the area of law covered by the training. They then offer it to any representative
who is available. From this point on, it is the representative’s responsibility to liaise with the parents, to record their and their child’s account of the events surrounding the exclusion, retrieve relevant documents from the school, draft the appeal letter, and ultimately argue the child’s case at the hearing.
Each representative is allocated a barrister mentor at Matrix, with whom we can discuss the legal issues of a case. However, it is up to us to apply the law to the facts, and to decide how best to advise our clients.
Every case is different. Sometimes the parents decide to withdraw their appeal before the hearing, because the child has settled into a new school. Sometimes the Governing Body will dismiss the appeal, but it will be possible to make a further appeal to an Independent Review Panel, or even to the First Tier Tribunal if the child has a claim for discrimination against a protected characteristic, such as disability. While most cases are in London, some are further afield: I have been to a Governing Body hearing in Worcester, and a colleague has travelled all the way up to Preston.
Key to the representative’s role is acting in a professional manner: maintaining client confidentiality, replying promptly to messages, and behaving courteously towards clients and in such a way as to instil confidence in your advice.
It takes practice to get a feel for the appropriate tactics to be used with schools in different circumstances. I was once asked by a Governing Body not to be too ‘adversarial’ in my submissions, as they thought it would be unfair on the teacher presenting the school’s case. Another time, the school refused to send my clients the record of a crucial disciplinary hearing which had led to their child’s exclusion before we had submitted the appeal letter. Learning how to respond to such challenges is part of what being a barrister-in-the-making is all about.
Thanks to Emma Park, current GDL student at The City Law School.