Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides parents with an appeal process where a board of management of a school or a person acting on behalf of it expels or suspends a pupil for a period of greater than 20 days or refuses to enrol a student.
Concerning expulsions, a total of 91 appeals were lodged in 2006 and 69 of these went to hearing, of which 23 were upheld. In 2007, a total of 76 appeals were lodged and 55 of these went to hearing, of which 13 were upheld. In 2008, a total of 84 appeals were lodged and 76 of these went to hearing, of which 24 were upheld.
Regarding suspensions, a total of 8 appeals were lodged in 2006 and five of these went to hearing, of which one was upheld. In 2007, a total of 11 appeals were lodged and six of these went to hearing, of which three were upheld. In 2008, a total of 22 appeals were lodged and 14 of these went to hearing, of which nine were upheld.
The Education Act 1998 provides that parental and student grievances should, in general, be determined in the school concerned. However, specific provision was made in section 29 of the Act for an appeal to be made to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science against decisions by schools which concern the enrolment, suspension or expulsion of pupils. I believe that the intention behind this distinction in the legislation is clear. Suspension and expulsion are very serious decisions that can have a major impact on the education of individual pupils. In such circumstances, good governance provisions allow for a right of appeal against these decisions. The most efficient and effective means of doing so is for an independent appeal to a panel of people with the requisite experience of the types of issues that arise at these appeals.
While the legislation provides for an appeal to be made to the Secretary General of my Department, it specifies that it is to be heard by an independent committee appointed by the Minister. Each committee consists of a serving school inspector and two other people nominated from a panel appointed by the Minister. The committee members I have appointed, like those appointed by my predecessors, have essentially been people with previous experience and expertise in the educational field, including a significant number of former school principals with a particular understanding of how schools operate. This committee, rather than my Department, determines the outcome of the appeal. Furthermore, there is no provision in the legislation for the Secretary General or any other departmental official to modify or interfere with decisions taken by statutory appeal committees. The Secretary General of my Department cannot direct a school to enrol or reinstate a pupil unless an appeal under section 29 is upheld.