CEN Annual Report: a note from Prof Gus John

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School class

Compulsory Schooling and the Urgent Need to Safeguard Children’s and Parents’ Rights

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) has just concluded a public consultation on a rights-based approach to education. CEN welcomes and has responded to that consultation.

We very much welcome this intervention by the Children’s Commissioner, especially as it is a logical development following her inquiries into school exclusions and the widespread abuse of children’s rights that those inquiries uncovered.

Successive governments have handed unlimited powers to academies and free schools and those who run them, as chains or otherwise. They have no accountability in the public sphere and parents are truly bewildered at their lack of redress when things go wrong and when, typically, such schooling providers choose to do as they please, ignoring every law, every statutory guidance and abandoning any concept of natural justice.

I had the experience recently of accompanying a parent to an academy (primary) in my capacity as parent advocate, for a discussion about alternative schooling provision for her primary school child who had been excluded for the last eight months.

The mother was instructed to keep the child at home and was told by the school that work would be provided for her to supervise. In eight months, the mother received only one set of work from the school and that had not been collected and marked. Her protests elicited a request from the school for her to attend a meeting with the headteacher but on condition that she came alone.

She argued that she knew nothing about exclusion guidelines or about the legality of what the school was doing. She just knew that it was not right and that her child was not receiving an education; she therefore wanted the support of a professional educator who was knowledgeable and could guide her in her dealings with the school.

The parent attended the school for the meeting. Upon being told that the parent had arrived for the meeting, the headteacher came out to meet her and usher her into his office. He then proceeded to shut the door although I was standing next to the parent. The parent intervened to say that I was there to support and advise her and that she needed me to be present to the meeting.

The headteacher remonstrated with her saying that she had been specifically told that he would see her and her alone. I asked him on what grounds he was denying that parent her right to be supported by a parent advocate. He continued to try and shut the door and simply repeated in parrot fashion that he had arranged to meet the parent alone.

The parent, utterly frustrated, then said to him that if she could not have an adviser with her, she was not prepared to meet with him on her own. At that point, both the parent and I left. That headteacher clearly felt he had the power to treat a parent in that disgraceful manner, having excluded her son apparently permanently in the second year of his primary schooling. The child remains out of school.

Meanwhile, the school feels it could stick two fingers up at the Local Authority and anybody else that tries to defend that child’s rights. This child has since been diagnosed with ADHD and an education health and care plan is now being devised for him.

Increasingly, one hears of academies bringing their barristers to governors disciplinary committees to face down and intimidate parents who are protesting about the way their children were treated.

Some of those lawyers make direct threats to parents about them being made ‘to face the full force of the law’ if they continue with allegations of racism or of bullying on the part of the school, its senior management and its governors. Such conduct is even more aggravated if the parent takes the matter to an independent review panel. The academies bring out their big guns in the form of expensive senior lawyers and Executive Directors, if not the Chief Executives of the entire academies chains.

Among the membership of those panels is at least one local headteacher. Parents are not told whether or how such headteachers are vetted, what their understanding of issues to do with race, racist bullying, children’s or parents’ rights might be, what their relationship with the school in question is or was, or what their own record of excluding students is or was.

The crucial point here is that those parents certainly do not have an automatic expectation that such headteachers sit on the review panel to represent their interests and safeguard their and their children’s rights.

And all of this is happening against a backcloth of government efforts to weaken, if not abolish altogether, the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equalities Act 2010 (see above), dismissing it and encouraging public bodies to ignore it as ‘red tape’.

In the current dispensation, nothing stands between those academies and free schools and the secretary of state for education. Parents simply do not know where to turn. And yet, the government provides no funding to ensure that parents and their children could have the same level of advocacy and representation as those schooling corporations.

The School Discipline (Pupil Exclusions and Reviews) (England) Regulations 2012 state that:

(6) If the governing body decide not to reinstate the pupil they must without delay—

(a) inform the relevant person, the head teacher and the local authority (and, if applicable, the home local authority) of their decision and the reasons for it in writing; and

(b) in the case of a pupil who is permanently excluded, give the relevant person notice in writing stating the following—

(i) that the exclusion is permanent;

(ii) that the relevant person may apply for the governing body’s decision to be reviewed by a review panel;

(iii) where the relevant person applies for a review, that the relevant person may require the local authority to appoint a Special Education Needs (SEN) expert to advise the review panel;

(iv) the role of the SEN expert in relation to a review;

(v) how an application for a review may be made and what the application must contain;

(vi) where and to whom to send the application and the date by which the application must be received;

(vii) that the relevant person may, at their own expense, appoint someone to make representations for the purpose of the review; and

(viii) that the relevant person may issue a claim under the Equality Act 2010(9) where the relevant person believes that unlawful discrimination has occurred, and the time within which such a claim should be made.

This guidance was issued at a time when funding for organisations such as the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) that provided advice to parents had already been cut. Few parents know of the existence of the 2012 pupil exclusions regulations, let alone have the capacity to organise themselves to ensure that schools comply with them. The dice are therefore structurally loaded more and more against parents and pupils and in favour of schools.

For several decades, communities have been concerned about the disproportionate number of black students, African-Caribbean boys in particular, being excluded from maintained schools. One would have thought, therefore, that government would have wanted to see evidence of all schools complying with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. Yet, as research carried out by ‘Race on the Agenda’ (ROTA) in October 2013 has found:

Out of the 78 free schools opened in 2011 and 2012:

  • Only 7.7% have published one equality objective;
  • Most seem to be unaware of the Equality Act;
  • Less than 25% have made reference to the Equality Act 2010 in their key documents and policies;

Issuing a claim under the Equality Act 2010 is a big deal for most parents. It is not something they would ordinarily feel competent to do without specialist advice, preferably from a lawyer. Sources of free legal advice and representation have diminished over the years as a result of public funding cuts. This goes for law centres as for race equality councils.

Power and especially the power to discriminate against children and their parents/carers and deny them their rights is being given more and more to schools, in inverse proportion to the ability of parents/carers to hold schools to account. Those schools have the infrastructure and the funds to intimidate and obstruct parents and to make it well nigh impossible for them to seek redress. Parents are no longer able to look to their local authority to safeguard their rights and their children’s entitlement to education.

That is why the Children’s Commissioner is spot on in her decision to consult on a rights-based approach to education. That is why I am privileged to identify with Communities Empowerment Network (CEN)’s response, especially having been a founder of the Network in 1999, its chair for many of those years and now its patron.

This annual report supplies yet more evidence of why advocacy and representation services such as those provided by CEN should be available and free at the point of access to pupils and families and why CEN and other such organisations should not have to struggle year on year to secure funding to safeguard children’s human rights.

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