A 14-year-old boy was permanently excluded from one of Wales' top secondary schools after shouting "slut" across a playground at a female teacher.
A judge in the High Court has now ruled that an appeal panel that upheld his expulsion failed to properly consider the incident and has quashed their decision.
The teenager, who was coming to the end of his first GCSE year at Olchfa School in Swansea, shouted the insult to the teacher in May last year during a break in classes.
He admitted it and apologised to her and said he had not realised how bad it was.
The boy was initially suspended for five days but was later permanently excluded. The teacher took time off work afterwards, was on medication and considered her future in teaching.
The boy’s family took the matter to the High Court after both the Olchfa School governors and the Independent Appeal Panel of Swansea Council upheld the head’s decision to permanently exclude their son.
There was a hearing in the High Court Queen’s Bench Division Administrative Court sitting in Cardiff.
His Honour Judge Jarman QC accepted that the boy's behaviour "involved an offensive term which was extremely disrespectful which caused significant emotional distress to the teacher" but said the independent panel was wrong not to make its own assessment of the seriousness of the behaviour and his apology.
The court was told that a letter from the boy’s GP said he was suffering anxiety and stress as a result of the exclusion and his parents wrote to Olchfa’s governors apologising for their son’s actions.
Judge Jarman referred to Welsh Government guidance on exclusions which states that pupils should only be excluded “in response to serious breaches of the school’s behaviour policy; and if allowing the learner to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the learner or others in the school.”
It adds that the decision “will usually be the final step in a process for dealing with disciplinary offences following a wide range of other strategies, which have been tried without success".
The guidance allows for exceptional circumstances where a headteacher could permanently exclude a child for a first or “one off” offence.
It says reasons might include issues such as serious actual or threatened violence, sexual abuse or assault, supplying illegal drugs and using, or threatened use of an offensive weapon.
Judge Jarman said the panel's remit was not to re-examine the case but to decide whether the incident was a serious breach of the school’s policy and whether allowing the boy to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of pupils or others in the school - which it had not done.
The panel was entitled to give weight to the headteacher’s decision, but not fail to carry out its own duty to have regard to the guidance, he said.
He said that had the panel made its own assessment, then it was not highly likely they would have upheld the exclusion. He added that the teenager’s future career prospects could be affected by having a permanent school exclusion on his record and quashed its decision.
Reporting his findings, which were also published online, in February 2022, Judge Jarman added: “The claimant now attends another school in Swansea and does not want to be reinstated at Olchfa. Nevertheless, he does not want the stigma of permanent exclusion to affect his future and wants the panel’s decision quashed."
He added that there is “now no challenge” to the facts around the boy’s exclusion from the 1,700-pupil school, which has the highest possible Estyn ranking and is the most over subscribed secondary in Swansea.
He said: “At the time he was a 14 year old bright pupil, who was coming the end of his first year of GCSE courses. There were no previous material concerns about his behaviour. On the 14 May 2021 during a break, the claimant whilst in the school yard called out the word “slut” to a female teacher.
"The teacher spoke to a colleague, who approached the claimant. He admitted what he had said and that it was about the teacher, and apologised in front of her.
“The colleague took him to the school’s exclusion unit and asked him to write down what had happened. What he wrote was that he saw the female teacher and that he “…said slut without intention of the actual meaning and I did not realise how bad it was and then I admitted it to her and apologised”.
The teacher also wrote down her account that day which confirmed what the claimant “shouted” at her: “I approached him about his and he admitted it. I am extremely upset and shocked by this derogatory comment as this is the second occasion this week. I hope that this matter will be dealt with immediately and there will be an appropriate sanction in place given the nature of the comment.”
Judge Jarman said it is not disputed that the teacher took time off work afterwards, was on medication, and was contemplating whether she could continue in the teaching profession.
Responding to the findings the child’s father said his son had been left affected by the matter but was now thriving at another school. He repeated his son’s apologies, but said the response from the school had been extreme.
After just returning to school after Covid closures the boy had missed three months school as a result of the exclusion, had been isolated and worried.
“When this first happened we were shocked. My son was mortified and apologised. He regrets what he did. But we were also shocked with the way it was handled by the school," he said.
The boy's parents have written to Olchfa asking for an apology. The letter adds: “In our son’s case the verdict reached by the judge was, that the decision of the independent appeals panel to uphold the headteacher’s and subsequent governors’ decision to permanently exclude my son was unlawful.
“We would like to take this opportunity to express our bitter disappointment in the entire apparatus of Olchfa School and the appeals process. It is our sincere hope that lessons can be learnt from this example so that other children do not suffer the same fate.”
A spokesperson for Swansea Council said: "The panel is completely independent of the school and the council and the panel took its own decision to uphold the permanent exclusion.
"It is important to note that the judge made it clear his ruling only relates to the panel’s decision. The judge gave no ruling on the school’s decision to permanently exclude the pupil. An offer to convene a new panel to re-consider the decision has been made."