In this second article for the Pro Bono Insights series, Rosanna Drinkhouse takes a deeper look at the School Exclusions Project.
Note: this article does not reflect the political views of the School Exclusion Project, nor the students who have been interviewed, but rather is a journalistic piece and all views expressed are my own.
Educated citizens and a democratic state have a symbiotic relationship, for robust exercise of democracy requires educated citizens, and citizens require education to contribute meaningfully to civil life. But UK schools are facing tougher challenges than ever before, thanks to increasing cuts in the numbers of teaching assistants, fiscal austerity, and declining educational funding. A marker of this educational epidemic is that an estimated 48,000 UK pupils are excluded from school annually, this equates to 1 in every 200 school children being excluded from school, and having to undergo educational hearings. City, University of London postgraduate students are engaging with this hole in public services by representing students and assisting parents at exclusion hearings, in order to ensure that they receive the best academic opportunities and that schools are kept accountable.
Combining legal training about exclusions law and allowing students to practice drafting and public speaking skills before school governance structures, the School Exclusion Project is a unique pro bono opportunity for Law students, allowing them to serve a vulnerable group in society: children who have been removed from school, for behavioural or developmental reasons. When asked to describe the program, City GDL student, Fenella McLuskie explained, “essentially, when a child gets excluded from school, their parents can appeal the decision, and SEP volunteers help them do this.” This is a critical feature, as many families who qualify for this program would not be able afford the hefty cost of legal representation.
Since the project’s founding in 2011, SEP has provided assistance to over 250 parents and children, with approximately 75-80% of their cases involving children with special educational needs. The free service is conducted through City, University of London postgraduate student volunteers, in partnership with Matrix Chambers and 11KBW. Each student volunteer is assigned a barrister mentor from those chambers.
SEP looks to hold schools accountable and give students a voice in the process. The exclusion Guidance states that “permanent exclusion should only be used as a last resort”, and the project helps ensure this principle is applied in practice. The removal from traditional schooling impacts significantly on the opportunities a student has access to, as well as evoking feelings of rejection and isolation. Students who are excluded are more likely to be illiterate and more likely to commit criminal offences, as well as suffer from mental illness. A recent HMIP survey found that 83% of boys in young offender institutions had been permanently excluded.
Though student volunteers for the School Exclusion Project are not legal professionals, they undergo training. City GDL student, Flora Curtis explained, “we received two days of training on the law relating to school exclusions, as well as in cross examination, from barristers at 11KBW and Matrix Chambers. We also had a supplementary talk given by David Herling, our public and contract law lecturer, on the principles of judicial review and how they might be applied to school exclusion cases.” Josh Lynbeck, a City GDL student, summarised it by offering, “we had a whole weekend. We were taught the law behind school exclusions, the grounds of review for Independent Review Panels, and how to cross examine effectively. That was definitely the most fun part.”
Though there is a tactical element to the skills law students ascertain from being part of SEP, like learning to cross examine and conducting significant legal research, there is also a social justice element to their work. Laura McDonald who is also a City GDL student, talks of her motivations:
“I want to practise public and human rights law. As a student representative for SEP I am almost doing that work. If you look at the statistics for students who are permanently excluded, certain groups are overrepresented, in particular, children and young people with disabilities or special educational needs, those from low income families, and black boys of Caribbean descent. Exclusion can seriously limit students’ opportunities. Given that a lot of illegal practice by schools has been found with regards to school exclusions, it’s really important that families have access to representation. I wanted to be able to provide that, and to ensure that they get a fair hearing and the opportunity for the exclusion to be overturned.”
GDL student Flora Curtis detailed further the alarming link between school exclusion and potential criminal activity:
“I was motivated to apply to volunteer as a student representative at the School Exclusion Project after reading about the the lasting impact that permanent exclusion can have on children’s lives. Students who are permanently excluded from schools are moved to temporary schools (Pupil Referral Units) where educational attainment is low, and the chances of becoming involved in the criminal justice system are high. Unfortunately, many parents are left navigating hearings to determine whether their children can be reinstated without any representation, and are up against schools with a much more detailed knowledge of the law relating to exclusions. I wanted to volunteer with the project to provide some assistance to parents in these difficult situations.”
After a student is removed from a traditional school, they often attend a temporary school, called a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). An Ofsted report in 2007 found that one in eight PRUs were inadequate. Fewer than 1% of pupils attending a PRU achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A*- C in 2008, with only 11.7% achieving at least one GCSE at A*- C.3. City postgraduates are playing an active role in inciting change in communities they are passionate about. For more information about SEP, please see their website.