Handling school panel processes with care
21 April 2020
Independent schools are expected to handle a number of internal processes by way of a panel review, for example, admission appeals, parental complaints and exclusion appeals.
On paper, these panel processes look quite straightforward. However, as many readers will know, things are rarely as easy as forming a panel and writing to the parents with a decision. This article highlights some of the tricky issues that arise and we also take a brief look at what you should be doing with existing cases during the COVID-19 crisis.
Initial correspondence with parents
It is helpful to identify the relevant policy or process that applies to a matter as quickly as possible. The relevant school policy should clarify who is best placed to respond to the initial correspondence received from a parent. Any communication should be concise, professional and include any required information. This initial exchange sets the tone and can either get you quickly on the right track or inflame the situation. It is worth taking the time to send a considered response and remember that these communications could be disclosable in a number of circumstances: in response to a data subject access request; as part of the bundle of documents if the matter proceeds to a panel; and/or in any future litigation.
Bundles and other disclosures of information
The appointed panel members will need to come to an evidence-based decision. Evidence can be provided in a bundle of papers as well as in person during a panel hearing.
When preparing a bundle of evidence, your starting point is to consider all relevant documentation. Once the papers have been collated, the person co-ordinating the panel (usually the Clerk to the Governors) will need to decide what to include.
Complaint or exclusion documentation usually contains allegations and details relating to other individuals. Under the Data Protection Act 2018, you should only disclose third party personal data if you conclude that it is reasonable to do so and there are a number of factors to consider here, including whether the information is confidential or was given in confidence and the type of information concerned. You may conclude that it is reasonable to withhold data to the extent that it relates to other pupils and you can do this either by redacting information relating to them (not just their names but anything that renders them identifiable) or by extracting the data in a way that makes it less likely that the other pupils will be identifiable.
The bundle will be sent to the panel and all parties involved in advance of any hearing. The preparation stage requires careful consideration, so allow sufficient time to go through this part of the process.
If you need to deviate from the timescale set out in your policy documentation, you should write to the parents to confirm the reason for any delay and clearly set out the new timetable going forwards.
Order of procedure
Panel processes can be daunting and an order of procedure document (or agenda) is a useful way to confirm what will happen on the day of the hearing, including who will attend. The Chair of the panel can use this as an aide memoire and make sure each party is involved in the appropriate way to keep the hearing on track.
The draft panel decision letter needs to be reviewed and approved by the Chair of the Panel. Once in final form it should be sent on behalf of the school to both parents (please check the particular circumstances in each case), with a copy to the Head.
You should also consider whether it is appropriate to include a copy of the minutes of the panel hearing. If the minutes are not provided, this does not remove the parents' right to request a copy.
Follow up action
Consider whether there are any lessons to be learnt. Recommendations may be made by the panel to the Governing Body of the school, for example to amend policies or procedures to prevent similar instances recurring. Also think about your record keeping and reporting obligations.
In these unprecedented times the DfE has confirmed that:
- In relation to complaints, it "does not expect schools to handle new or existing complaints while they are closed. Schools should, however, still engage with parents and pupils where they can."
This best practice guidance for school complaints procedures 2020 does not directly apply to independent schools and I would advise schools to consider whether you are able to progress new or existing complaints during the summer Term 2020.
- In relation to admission appeals, parents must continue to have the right to appeal a decision to refuse their child a place and regulatory changes will come into force on 24 April 2020 and remain effective until 31 January 2021. It is intended that the regulations will remove the requirement for appeals panels to be held in person and give the school flexibility to conduct panel hearings in person, by telephone, video conferencing or through a paper-based appeal where all submissions are made in writing. Further legislation and guidance will follow in the coming weeks.
The Education sector is one of the best at adapting to change. Technology-based solutions such as video conferencing may enable processes to be conducted remotely. However, there is a raft of security, data protection and safeguarding issues to consider when operating online and this approach should only be contemplated where it is suitable, fair and reasonable to do so in the circumstances.
For further information and advice please contact Vicky Wilson or your usual Wilsons contact.