HL Deb 16 October 2002 vol 639 cc857-60

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they considered it appropriate to intervene in the exclusion decision at Glyn School, Epsom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was concerned about the effect of an exceptional set of circumstances on the education of pupils at Glyn Technology School. She pressed the local education authority to take urgent action in the best interests of all concerned. She was in no doubt about the legal position.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. However, would it not have been more appropriate for the Secretary of State, and within her powers, to work with schools to develop a clear, non-negotiable code of conduct for pupils and a properly managed transfer system to high quality alternative provision? If the Government are determined to keep these independent panels, should they not always have a serving teacher on them? Should they not also have the power to impose some type of restorative justice solution to the problem, rather than the simple "exclude or not exclude" alternatives that are open to them at present?

Finally, will the Leader of the House perhaps try to ensure that the fourth Question is not squeezed in future?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is very important to understand that, by the time the Secretary of State heard about this case and became involved, the school was already under siege from the media, the teachers were being balloted on strike action and the pupils were being taught in isolation. I feel that the House would like to know the exceptional circumstances in this case. The efforts we have been making have certainly involved working with the head teacher and the education authority to try to resolve the situation as swiftly as possible for all concerned. Noble Lords will recall from our debates on the Education Bill that, from January onwards, one panel member will be a teacher.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if the Secretary of State knowingly breached her legal position—which is what the noble Baroness has just said—did she do so with or without legal advice?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State did not breach the legal position. I shall be very specific. When the situation came to her attention, on Thursday, the Secretary of State asked officials to speak to Surrey local education authority to ensure that it was being handled with the necessary urgency and to ensure a rapid return to normal education for all pupils at Glyn School. The education authority was encouraged to meet the parents of the boys concerned to discuss alternative ways for them to receive full-time education and meanwhile to make arrangements for them to receive independent tuition. The Secretary of State talked to the head teacher to express her concern at the difficulties being faced by the school and to emphasise her wish that the LEA and the school should work together to find a solution in the best interests of all involved.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, did the Secretary of State have the power and the authority to overrule the panel?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Secretary of State did not do so, neither did she attempt to do so. She did what I believe was common sense. The school that we are discussing is besieged by the press; a ballot is taking place on strike action; the situation of two young people is not resolved and there is deep concern. On that basis the Secretary of State asked her officials to talk to the relevant education authority to try to ensure that the situation was speedily resolved. I believe that the House would agree that that is the way in which a Secretary of State should behave.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, this Question underlines the need for alternative education for excluded and suspended pupils. Will the noble Baroness assure the House that this is now, or soon will be, available throughout the whole of England?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we understand that every education authority is now able to provide the education that we would wish to see for our children. Noble Lords will have heard me say a number of times in your Lordships' House that there is little value in excluding children if we do not provide them with alternative education. Indeed, one could argue that that could exacerbate their situation. Therefore, we have made clear that we wish all pupils who are excluded to be provided with full-time education. That might be undertaken in other schools, through tuition or pupil referral units, if those are appropriate. It is very important that we move swiftly to that position.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, what happens now that the teachers have voted to strike?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I understand it, at the moment the two boys are not in school and tuition has been arranged for them. The issue for the teachers needs to be resolved in the context of what should happen in the best interests of all the pupils at Glyn Technology School, the teachers and, of course, the two boys.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the appeal panel at Glyn School operated according to guidelines set down by the Secretary of State herself and that if the parents were not content with the decision of the appeal panel the right course was through judicial review rather than through the Secretary of State intervening in this decision?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recall that it was not a matter of the parents being unhappy with the decision but rather the school. Noble Lords will remember that we have an amendment to the guidance that we published which makes it clear that appeal panels should not normally recommend the reinstatement of pupils where there has been serious actual or threatened violence to a teacher or fellow pupil. In the exceptional circumstances I have described I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that it is in the best interests of all children for the local education authority to move swiftly to resolve the situation.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister has said that all local authorities are able to provide satisfactory out-of-school education for excluded children. Can she assure us that that does not include home study with two or three hours only of tuition?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the key to the education being satisfactory is that it is full time. It is important that students receive full-time education. As regards excluded children, a period of time may elapse before alternative full-time education commences as obviously negotiations have to take place with the family to consider what is best for those children. In many cases a move to another school can resolve the issue for a particular child. We need to be clear that that is one of the options. However, in some cases behavioural issues may result in a need to consider a pupil referral unit for the young person.