HC Deb 08 July 1996 vol 281 cc149-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

10.34 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Nothing is more important than the education, the preparation for life and the protection and safety of children. Currently 890 children, mostly from my constituency, are at Rectory school, Hampton. In September, there will be 950 pupils. For the first time ever in its 60 years, it is full at the point of entry for 11-year-olds, and has had to turn some children away. That results from its growing reputation and its improving results under its outstanding head teacher, Mrs. Alessandra Wilson. She is greatly respected in Hampton and in Hampton Hill, and among her professional colleagues.

The staff at Rectory are excellent, as is the governing body. At the end of 1994, an Office for Standards in Education report stated: Rectory School has a safe and caring environment, with a strong positive ethos. There are good relationships between staff and pupils and the community … It benefits from the clear and positive leadership of the Headteacher, and the high commitment of staff … The percentage of pupils gaining 5+ A-G grades has significantly improved from 32 per cent. in summer 1992 to 50 per cent. in summer 1994 … Overall the behaviour of pupils is good both in classes and around the school, although on occasion it can be noisy … There is a developing programme of moral, social and cultural education". A school like Rectory should be praised and supported. Its success depends on the authority and leadership of the head teacher, the teachers and the governors. That should not be undermined by anyone, least of all by the local education authority. Yet that is just what has happened as a result of a soft and woolly-minded policy of leniency towards drug offences on the part of the local education authority, the Liberal Democrat-controlled Richmond upon Thames borough council. At one fell swoop, it has delivered a body blow to the authority of the head and the governor, flouted the professional opinion of the teaching staff, and ridden roughshod over the legitimate anxieties of parents.

Three years ago, the governors of Rectory School, to their credit, laid down a strong policy against the possession of drugs. The school curriculum states: Governors have decided that if any pupil were to be found in school in possession of an illegal substance or drug, he or she would be permanently excluded"— that is, expelled.

A code of conduct, called "Rectory School Expectations", is sent to every child in the school every September. It states: Governors have decided that if any pupil were to be found in school in possession of an illegal substance or drug, then he or she would be permanently excluded. That is clearly understood by all pupils and parents. It is a tough but fair policy, which is backed by parents and staff in the interests of the 900 pupils taken as a whole.

Drugs such as cannabis can become an addictive habit. In the long run, according to the "Oxford Textbook of Medicine", cannabis can cause lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema. It can damage reproductive capacity, cause psychiatric damage and induce personality change. It is a slow poison that can begin to rot body, mind and spirit. That is why the parents want the school to be a haven against drugs, not to be tolerant of them.

The policy at Rectory school has worked better than in many other schools. For three years there were no drug episodes; exceptionally, there was just one recent incident. Four months ago, three boys were caught red handed in the possession of cannabis. After careful consideration, the head decided that there were extenuating circumstances for one of the boys, but not for the other two, whom she decided to exclude.

The parents of one boy appealed to the governors, who upheld the head's decision. There was then an appeal to a sub-committee of the governors, chaired by the Rev. Brian Leathard, the much-respected vicar of Hampton Hill. The sub-committee considered the appeal most carefully and upheld the decision of the governors, taken as a whole.

Next, the parents of the same boy appealed to Richmond upon Thames borough council, to whom the parents of the second boy had directly appealed. A panel of three councillors—Carthew, Morgan and Gold—advised by two council officers, reversed the governors' decision, and decided to reinstate the two boys who had been excluded from Rectory school. The Rectory school governors then appealed to an independent panel, who were appointed and briefed by Richmond upon Thames borough council. The independent panel also decided to support the councillors' decision and to reinstate the two boys.

At the beginning of last month, three teacher governors of the school wrote to me, and sent me a letter signed by 71 of the staff—only one had refused to sign. They said that they had written to the borough's director of education about their extreme concern over the reinstatement by the local education authority of the two pupils who were permanently excluded from this school for being in possession of cannabis on school premises on 4 March 1996 The letter signed by 71 staff members of the school continued: The Borough's decision will in our view, cause us extreme difficulty in managing pupils, particularly in Year 10, who will inevitably seek to take advantage of this new situation. They will know that if they bring illegal substances into school, the final sanction can be removed … We feel disastrously let down by the local education authority"— Richmond upon Thames borough council— in this matter … the decision appears to challenge the whole concept of LMS"— local management of schools.

One parent wrote to me to voice what he has called his outrage taken at the action by the LEA". Another parent, a mother with two sons—one recently achieved excellent GCSE results at Rectory school, and the other is about to begin at Rectory school this September—wrote to say: I was horrified that the LEA overturned the punishment, instead of supporting the school's very clear and sensible policy on the control of drug abuse". On receiving the letters, I asked instantly to see Mrs. Wilson, and saw her the same day. I then asked to see representatives of the parents and governors. Later, I had some informal conversations with members of Richmond upon Thames council.

Following the council's decision to reinstate the two boys, the central question must be, "What message does it give to the other 900 children?" Does that decision say, "Your head teacher was wrong. The school governors were wrong. Cannabis is not so dangerous for teenagers after all. Richmond upon Thames borough council says so and it knows best"? Is that the message of the reinstatement?

Children and young people not only have a strong sense of justice and fairness; they also need and want firm guidance. But, as a result of Richmond borough council's decision, they are not getting that. The children are now confused: they do not know which rules or laws can be breached and which cannot. If cannabis is condoned, why not Ecstasy or knives? How will local primary schools and their staff and parents react? Will they want to use Rectory school in 1997 as much as they chose to do in 1995 and the early part of 1996?

The governors of Rectory school feel betrayed by the borough council. Rectory happens to be next to two large independent day schools. Some years ago, there was a drug offence in one of those. The headmaster's decision to expel was endorsed by his governors; and that was that. There could be no further appeal. Are the governors of Rectory school, Hampton, to be treated by Richmond borough council as less responsible people than the governors of neighbouring independent schools?

The authority of the governors and the head of Rectory school should not have been undermined by Richmond borough council unless there were absolutely compelling grounds to do so. No such compelling grounds exist. The school rule that drugs entail exclusion could and should have been given great weight, as one of the main factors, by the appeal bodies.

The borough council now seeks to invoke Department for Education circulars 10/94 and 4/95 to imply that the two boys ought not to have been excluded. I have studied these two circulars closely and can see nothing in them to prevent Richmond council from having supported the decision of Rectory school. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to clarify the position on this.

It seems to me that Richmond council has not acted illegally, but it has acted unwisely and wrongly in the way that its appeal panels were set up and advised. The three councillors should have been advised by their officers to give much more weight to the well-being of the school and the 900 children as a whole. As long as there is no injustice, sometimes an example has to be made.

I am equally uneasy about the appointment and briefing given to the so-called "independent" panel of three ladies, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Scotney and Mrs. Viscardi. They are all governors of primary schools, as far as I know without experience in the government of comprehensive schools. The appeal to that panel was by the school against the council, who were thus the two parties to the appeal. Yet the independent panel allowed the children of the parents to appear. This turned the hearing into a three-sided hearing between the school, the parents and the council, which it was not supposed to be.

The parents were accompanied by a solicitor, who spoke for them. The school representatives, the head, Mrs. Alessandra Wilson, and the Rev. Brian Leathard were notified neither that the parents were going to be there nor that they would be legally represented. Therefore, the school representatives did not bring a solicitor. This unbalanced the hearing by the independent panel.

The borough council officer advising the independent panel treated Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Leathard, who are greatly respected pillars of society locally in the Hamptons, in a cavalier manner, telling them to shut up or leave the room.

I do not blame the members of the independent panel, so much as those who selected them and briefed them. Ultimately, the responsibility for these arrangements rests not so much with the chief executive of the council as with the leader of the council, Mr. Williams, the chairman of the education committee, Mr. Cornwell, who is also a governor of Rectory school, and the deputy leader of the council, Mrs. Alexander, who is also the chairman of the governors of Rectory school. It is for them and the committees they chair, in the end, to give policy to their officers on how this sort of situation is to be handled.

The two boys in question are now reinstated at Rectory, and are settling back. No one is suggesting that they should be removed at this stage. However, some serious damage has been done. Parents are asking, "How can the authority of the head and the governors now be restored?"

We have changed the law of the land to give parents more power, and it is for the parents to decide how to use it. Parents could easily hold a general meeting and say that they do not wish the governors of the school to change their rules against drugs. It might be that they would wish "to fire a warning shot across the bows" of the borough council. They could warn it that, if there is any such reinstatement decision by Richmond council ever again, then parents might consider a further meeting to discuss a petition of 20 per cent. of the parents, which could trigger a referendum of all the parents on whether or not the school should remove itself from borough council control.

Becoming grant-maintained would result in substantial additional finance for the school, of between £200,000 and £300,000 a year, since the school would no longer have to carry any local council overheads. The governors could also trigger a parents' referendum, but an alternative procedure to obtain one is the petition by 20 per cent. of the parents.

I am not going to suggest that a referendum of parents should be triggered now, but it is open to the parents to warn the borough council that one could take place in the future. Such a warning would deliver to Richmond council a well deserved shock. The mere threat of such a referendum from a meeting of parents would probably deter the council from making such a foolish and dangerous decision again. It would also serve to restore the authority of the head and governors of Rectory school, which is what the parents want—for the sake, as I said at the outset, of the education, the safety and the welfare of all the children in the school.

10.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire)

I start by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for raising this important issue on the Adjournment, and for the way he has done so. Exclusions from school are self-evidently a sensitive and emotive issue; discussion of drugs in schools is equally sensitive and emotive. Combining the two can be a recipe for a great deal more heat than light. My hon. Friend has avoided that; I am grateful to him for the clear way in which he has set out the background to the case in question, and for his measured comments on the issues at the focus of his and his constituents' concern.

There is no dispute about the facts. Rectory school, Hampton, has a well publicised and tough line on drugs in school, which I commend. Following an incident in March, the head teacher permanently excluded two pupils in pursuance of that policy. These exclusions were upheld by the school's governing body, but Richmond local education authority took a different view and ordered that the two boys be reinstated. The governors exercised their right to go to an independent appeal committee but they were not successful in reimposing the exclusions.

So much for the background. I do not propose to disinter it in any more detail. My hon. Friend said that the LEA acted legally but believes that it acted unwisely. I understand that the school takes the same view. Neither wants to unpick what has been decided about the two boys, but both are rightly concerned about the general issues raised, on which I intend to focus.

Before doing so, I want to make it clear that I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's line of argument. I can well understand the difficulties that a school faces when excluded pupils are reinstated. Sometimes, though not always, there are difficulties with the pupils directly involved. Very often there are concerns that the school's authority may be undermined and that it will be harder to maintain good discipline as a result. When there are reinstatements in cases involving drugs, there are very real worries that firm action being taken to combat this menace among young people will be jeopardised.

It is a very difficult situation, and I have every sympathy with the head teacher and school concerned, especially as in this case they seem to have acted quite properly throughout.

There is general support, including from the Opposition, for the Government's "Tackling Drugs Together" strategy. As part of that, my Department issued guidance to all schools in England in May last year on drug prevention in schools. Circular 4/95, as it is known, included general advice on school discipline in respect of drugs. I emphasise that that was general advice and clearly labelled as such. It must be for the governors of each school to establish a more detailed policy in the light of local circumstances, and for head teachers to apply those policies appropriately when reacting to particular incidents.

We believe, as circular 4/95 makes clear, that all schools should include a specific reference to drugs in their policy statements about pupil behaviour, and that it should set out clearly the disciplinary measures likely to be taken in response to drug-related incidents. In establishing those policies, schools will want to consider a repertoire of responses, including both sanctions and counselling, and take account of how punishment prescribed by the school links with law enforcement by the police.

How that general guidance is converted into detailed policies for schools will depend on local circumstances. Some schools, with the support of parents and the local community, will be able to adopt firmer policies than others. Some schools have more of a problem to tackle than others and will have to pitch their disciplinary responses accordingly. But whatever the detail, it is important that pupils and parents are left in no doubt about the school's intentions regarding drugs.

As my hon. Friend said, Rectory school's policy is exemplary in that respect. After wide local consultation and with overwhelming support from parents and the local community, the governors declared that the school should be a drug-free zone. It made it clear that permanent exclusion would be the normal response for any pupil found in possession of, or using, an illegal substance on the school premises. Parents and pupils are reminded of that in the school's code of conduct, which is re-issued to them annually.

I understand that at no point has Richmond LEA raised objections to, or doubts about, Rectory school's policy. It did so neither in the initial consultations, nor when the policy was re-issued in each of the following three years. Indeed. I am told that there have been a number of indications of the LEA's support for the Rectory governors' strong stance.

My hon. Friend said that, in the aftermath of the recent incident, it was suggested locally that Rectory school's policy was in conflict with my Department's guidance. That is not the case, and I underline that tonight. Our guidance states, in terms, that the fact that behaviour could constitute a criminal offence need not of itself lead automatically to exclusion. But the emphasis is on the word "automatically". Exclusion has serious consequences for pupils and it is important that all the circumstances of an incident are considered before judgments are made.

All the facts show that Rectory school considers apparent breaches of its drugs policy carefully and in detail. It has a high threshold for mitigating circumstances, but that is not an impossible hurdle. There is clearly no crude automaticity about exclusion decisions. Indeed, my hon. Friend has confirmed that a third pupil was involved peripherally in the incident at the centre to which my hon. Friend has drawn the House's attention. After consideration of all the circumstances, the head teacher decided that a fixed-term rather than permanent exclusion would be appropriate in that case.

Let me deal now with some of the general issues about exclusions. This serious sanction can have a significant effect on a pupil's school career. It should and must be a last resort. For that reason, the power to exclude rests solely with head teachers. It cannot be delegated. For the same reason, exclusion decisions, once taken, are subject to several levels of review. In the first instance, a school's governing body, or its discipline committee if it has one, can review the case and decide to reinstate the pupil if that seems appropriate. Secondly, for county schools such as Rectory, the LEA must consider all permanent exclusions and any representations from the parents concerned. It, too, can decide on reinstatement. That possibility does not, however, apply to grant-maintained schools—a point which Rectory school governors might wish to note, not least in connection with my hon. Friend's reference to a possible petition to that effect.

Finally, for all schools, representations can be made to an independent appeals committee. Such representations can be made by the parents of an excluded pupil or, in a case where the LEA has directed reinstatement of an excluded pupil, by the governors of the school concerned. Those committees are constituted to review exclusion cases impartially. They must include a majority of members independent of the school and LEA involved, and at least one lay member with no professional involvement in education. They operate in accordance with a statutory framework laid down by the Education Act 1986 and they are guided by a code of practice promulgated jointly by the local authority associations and the council on tribunals. They look afresh at all aspects of each case and reach conclusions in the light of the information presented to them, including representations from the parties involved.

The committees are independent and it is important that they are seen to operate as such. Of course, it is also important that the process is seen to be fair by each of the parties involved—although, necessarily, at least one of them will be disappointed by the committee's conclusions. The conclusions, whatever they may be, are final and binding on all parties—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no power in law to overturn them.

Our latest figures show that these exclusion appeal committees were convened some 1,200 times in the 1994–95 school year, which represents a little over 10 per cent. of all permanent exclusion cases. In about 15 per cent. of the appeals brought by parents, the excluded pupil was reinstated. Of the 160 appeals brought by governing bodies, almost half led to LEA reinstatement decisions being overturned. Therefore, the outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion.

I understand that Rectory school felt that the LEA and, in turn, the appeal committee focused overmuch on the situation of the two pupils who had been excluded. It believes that insufficient attention was given to the position of the school and, in particular, to the difficulties that reinstatement would cause for the school in maintaining its discipline policy generally and in regard to its strong line on drugs. That mirrors complaints that we have heard in a number of other high profile exclusion cases in recent months.

Clearly, appeal committees have a difficult job. They must look at all the relevant facts—at whether the excluded pupil was responsible for the alleged misdemeanour and, if so, whether permanent exclusion is the appropriate response in his or her case. However, consideration of the last question need not focus on the situation of the excluded pupil alone—it may be important to take into account the interests of other pupils at the school. That is most obviously the case where an excluded pupil has assaulted others or has been persistently disruptive in class. However, it also applies where there are considerations about sustaining a school's authority to maintain good discipline and the sort of orderly environment necessary for effective learning.

The present legislation places no constraints on the freedom of appeal committees to take full account of the wider interests of the school, but it does not require them to do so. Recently, we have been considering whether amending legislation to that effect would be appropriate. My hon. Friend's representations certainly reinforce the arguments for that, and I promise him that we will look sympathetically at this when we consider legislative options for the next Session.

Such legislation could help in difficult cases where the educational interests of an excluded pupil need to be balanced against the interests of his or her peers. However, it would not remove the important rights of appeal. The serious consequences of permanent exclusion mean that, on grounds of natural justice if no other, parents and pupils must continue to have a right to an independent hearing.

Finally, I refer to the present situation at Rectory school. I agree with my hon. Friend about the difficult situation in which the head teacher and the governors find themselves, and I have a great deal of sympathy for them. They excluded pupils in line with a policy on drugs that had been drawn up with widespread local support. Richmond LEA had never raised questions about that policy, yet it reinstated the two pupils, at least partly, on the ground that the policy was too harsh. It is not at all surprising that the head and the governors feel very badly let down.

Mr. Jessel

And the parents.

Mr. Squire

Yes, I accept that. From what my hon. Friend has said about the qualities of the school and its head, I am sure that the school will come out of this difficult situation with honour. It is clear that it continues to enjoy strong support from parents. Indeed, letters received by the Department refer to widespread anger at the LEA's decision. Given that support, I trust that the school will be able to sustain its commendably strong line on drugs, but it will have to work harder at it and will not thank the LEA for that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.