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Governance workload

Dealing with the rising workload of exclusions: sooner and later

Emma Knights discusses the key exclusions issues and NGA's plans to cover this important topic.

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Last month’s NGA report on school and trust governance workload has been extremely popular, both in terms of the number of downloads and the f­eedback we have received. We have clearly hit a nerve.

The well-documented increase in numbers of exclusions is resulting in more work for governors and trustees, particularly as regards sitting on review panels. NGA’s first governance leadership forum in 2024, on 30 January, will be on this topic: is the rising number of exclusions the right response to increasing pupil behavioural issues in schools? The driving principle must, of course, be what is best for all stakeholders, but especially the pupil population. Governing boards must exercise a strategic oversight role on pupil behaviour, holding executive leaders to account for the best possible outcomes.

In the longer term, there was only one duty we could recommend removing from governance volunteers: exclusion review panels. Boards are required to consider certain instances of suspension and all instances of permanent exclusion and decide whether the head’s decision should be upheld or the pupil reinstated. A governing board panel has to establish the facts of the case and determine whether that decision was lawful, reasonable, and procedurally fair. There can be further work if an independent review panel is then requested by parents/carers.

Panels require additional meeting time, huge amounts of preparation, specific training as well as often a potential impact on relationships with leaders which may skew decision making. They can also be emotionally exhausting with the depressing reality that exclusion has significant ramifications for a child’s future prospects. The need to make the best decisions for all brings with it another real pressure on top of all those other difficult decisions brought to governing boards.

Chairing the panel can be particularly challenging given the requirement to mediate between parties, intervening if required, as well as ensuring that the meeting is conducted in the correct procedural manner.

What’s more: this role does not fall squarely within the scope of governance.

1. Exclusion panels are not strategic

Governors and trustees rarely get involved with individual pupils, whereas here they are expected to read a vast amount regarding a pupil’s behaviour record as well as other relevant information, including evidence from their parents. They are not normally adjudicators in cases, with the exception of staffing issues when appropriate as the employers.

2. Exclusions is a specialised area of education

Panel members need to be specifically trained to carry out this role confidently, another call on governors/trustees’ time over and above other training for governance responsibilities.

3. Overturning a head’s decision can wreck relationships

Governors and trustees can feel that they are being pitted against their school leaders in cases where they are minded to reinstate the pupil in question, creating tensions that can be detrimental to good governance. Trust and respect which has been painstakingly built up over time can be shattered in a moment. 

4. Perception of independence

NGA survey data tell us that the vast majority (94%) who had served on an exclusions panel in 2019 supported the headteacher’s decision. In 2019, the human rights charity JUSTICE examined the processes for challenging school exclusions in England and one of its main criticisms was that governing board panels lack independence. That was the perception of many parents.

So who else?

JUSTICE recommended the replacement of governor/trustee panels by a suitably qualified and experienced independent reviewer. We are supporting this suggestion. Removing the involvement in panels would not remove the board’s strategic oversight role on pupil behaviour.

Since we revealed this proposal to our members earlier this month, the general reaction so far has been “how soon can this happen?” We have begun work to convince others in the sector, but especially of course the Department for Education (DfE). Such a change cannot happen overnight, but we hope this proposal continues to be uncontroversial and generally supported. We will keep NGA members informed.

In the meantime, do please join us on 30 January to learn more and listen to the DfE and others on what we can do to ensure pupil behaviour policies work best for all concerned. This is a complex area with competing interests, an important area for a board to consider in the light of its vision, values and ethos.

If, in the new year, you are asked to undertake an exclusion panel for the first time, we of course have both guidance and our highly recommended e-learning module.

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.

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