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Department to introduce Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to the branches of Tynwald 29 October 2008

MEASURES to strengthen teachers’ powers to protect pupils are among those contained in the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which will be introduced to the branches of Tynwald on Tuesday.

Education Minister Anne Craine MHK said the Bill addressed deficiencies in existing law and provided additional safeguards regarding the welfare and well-being of children.

The Department consulted the public, schools, professional associations, Government Departments and local authorities in preparing the Bill.

The Bill will – if it becomes law – give teachers express powers to restrain pupils, where necessary, to prevent them committing criminal offences, injuring themselves or others or disrupting a school. Teachers would also have the power to confiscate prohibited items such as weapons, drugs and alcohol and search pupils and their belongings for weapons, subject to safeguards, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect they possess them.

The Minister said:

‘At present there is the possibility that members of staff restraining children they feared were going to harm themselves or other pupils could be charged with assault.’

She said that while UK law protected teachers in this area, the Island’s Education Act 2001 was deficient and teachers’ professional associations had asked for greater protection in the interests of pupil safety.

The Minister stressed a law change would be accompanied by detailed safeguards. The Department would introduce a policy detailing how searches should be carried out and would follow recommendations contained in guidance produced in 2007 by the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families.

‘In this document, it is recommended that a search should always be carried out with two members of staff, one of whom must be the same sex as the person being screened,’ the Minister said.

Measures to combat the growing problem of truancy are also contained in the Bill. These measures include imposing fixed penalty fines, where appropriate, for parents whose children fail to attend school and requiring parents to attend guidance courses.

‘There has been an increase in recent years in the number of unauthorised absences, the number of children arriving late and the number committing internal truanting by registering and then failing to attend classes and we are seeking, through these measures, to improve attendance,’ the Minister explained.
‘At present, the Department can only take parents to court, which impacts on families from both the experience of appearing in court and the costs involved. It is felt the fixed penalty system might be more appropriate in some cases.
‘The Department is of the opinion that, in some cases, it would be appropriate for the parents to attend counselling and parenting classes. At present, the Department is able to suggest this as a way of helping improve the attendance levels. It cannot require parents’ attendance.’

Under the Bill, police officers would be given greater powers to ensure truants are in a place of safety. The Minister explained that police officers who spot truants out in public can, at present, merely take down their details.

‘However, unless they feel that they are at risk, they do not have the power to remove them from the streets,’ she said.
‘Clearly all children are vulnerable if wandering the streets when they should be at school and we have a duty to ensure their safety.’
The Bill also makes it an offence for a pupil suspended from school to be on school premises once he/she has been asked to leave.
‘There have been incidents where young people who have been suspended from school have returned to their school and deliberately caused disruption. Technically they cannot be removed as they are registered pupils. The purpose of this amendment is to remove that anomaly,’ explained the Minister.

The Bill also gives after-school detentions a statutory footing. Schools’ Articles of Governance already state that after-school detentions are among the penalties that may be imposed for misbehaviour, but the Minister explained:

‘This clause provides the Department and its schools with a statutory defence against any claim of wrongful imprisonment where a period of detention has been imposed without a parent’s consent.’

The Bill requires parents to notify the Department of the arrangements they are making for their children’s education if they chose not to send them to state schools. The 2001 Act permits parents to opt out of the state system provided they ensure children receive suitable, full-time education.

‘The Department has no intention of interfering with this fundamental parental right,’ the Minister stressed. ‘However, there is no clear picture at present of the number of children on the Island who are being educated outside the state school system.
‘This information would enable more accurate projections to be made regarding the number of applications likely to be received for financial support for further and higher education. It would also enable the Department to discharge its duty under the 2001 Act, which demands that the Department intervenes when it has reason to believe that parents are not ensuring their children are receiving suitable education.
‘The Department does not have accurate records to indicate which children are being home educated or being educated at an independent school. The clause will require parents to provide the Department with certain basic information,’ the Minister said.

The Bill also seeks to replace the Board of Education with an Education Council, whose members would be appointed by an independent body, possibly the Appointments Commission, and would continue to govern schools and advise the Department.

The Board was, at one time, 24-strong and its membership mirrored that of House of Keys constituencies, with one, two and three-seat constituencies. It dictated all education policy. Following the advent of the Ministerial system of Government in 1986, all power was vested in the Minister and in 1987 the size of the Board was reduced to 15. In 2004, the responsibilities of the Board were further diminished, with responsibility for specialist areas being delegated to a Tynwald member of the Department.

Over the last seven Board general elections it has become increasingly difficult to attract candidates. At the last election in 2002, eight seats went uncontested, while turnout in the seven uncontested areas was poor. Two recent vacancies failed to attract any candidates for election but when the Department subsequently sought to co-opt a candidate, names were put forward.

The Minister said that during the consultation period, only 15 comments were received concerning the replacement of the Board with an Education Council and the majority of their authors were under the misapprehension that the Board retained the powers it had prior to 1987.

She stressed:

‘The Board of Education has played an invaluable role over the years in advising the Department and schools on matters of policy but changes in legislation have seen its role diminish quite fundamentally. The Education Council, although not publicly elected, will still continue to play a key role in school governance and in advising the Department over policy.’

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