London Borough of Ealing (18 015 562)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 04 Jul 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr W complained the Council failed to accept an agreement to support him through three years of undergraduate study. The Council was not at fault for saying the agreement it had with Mr W was for him to study a Higher National Diploma rather than a Batchelor of Science degree. But there was no evidence it considered whether supporting Mr W for the final year of study was in Mr W’s best interests. It is asked to do that now.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, Mr W, said the Council failed to provide support to him for his undergraduate studies although it had previously agreed to do so. He asked the Ombudsman to consider whether the Council was wrong in failing to offer support him for the third year of study, which would enable him to achieve a Batchelor of Science (BSc) degree.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
  3. The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman will share this decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) under our information sharing agreement.
  4. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mr W’s advocate and made enquiries of the Council and assessed its response. I sent Mr W and the Council a copy of my draft decision and took their comments into account before issuing a decision.

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What I found

  1. The Child Law Advice website says, in accordance with the relevant legislation, ‘If, at the age of 21, the young person (who has left care) is still being helped by the responsible (Council) with education or training, then they remain a ‘former relevant child’ until a maximum age of 25. Their programme of education or training will be set out within their Pathway Plan’.
  2. Mr W, who is a care leaver, wished to study an undergraduate Batchelor of Science (BSc) degree.
  3. Mr W received an offer to study a three-year degree at University F in Computing in May 2017 at the age of 24.
  4. The Council’s agreement to fund this degree is contained in an email of 4 May 2017. This says: “We will provide the grant for 3 years at £5,500 per year only if:
      1. All 3 years are undertaken consecutively with no resits. (any resits would have to be done concurrently with the degree course and there will be no additional funding provided for this).
      2. You or the university do not change the course that you are on.
      3. We will review at the end of every term and only if you have attended the course and passed all modules/ exams will we fund the next terms payment.
      4. You complete a financial agreement with your worker to this effect and you sign to allow us access to your attendance and progress on a termly basis. The financial agreement will lay all of this out clearly.
      5. You meet regularly with your allocated leaving care worker and you complete your pathway plan and reviews.
      6. The grant must be used to covers the vacation periods first and foremost.”
  5. In July 2017, University F contacted Mr W’s support worker to explain that because Mr W had not scored highly in his Foundation Course, and had failed one of the mathematical components, he was unable to proceed with the degree course at University F. Mr W was advised to enrol onto a Higher National Diploma (HND) course at College 1. This way he could still pursue his goal of a BSc, would be studying on a course with a less heavy focus on maths, and the course would be delivered in a manner more suitable for him, with more practical and small group sessions.
  6. One of the conditions of the agreement the Council had with Mr W was; ‘You or the university (University F) do not change the course that you are on’. Enrolling on the HND meant the course was changed from a BSc at University F to an HND at College 1. The Council considered that the funding agreement, made in the 4 May 2017 email, transferred to the HND course rather than funding a BSc. If it had not done this, Mr W may not have received funding for the HND.
  7. There is no evidence the Council agreed further funding beyond the HND. Because of this, the agreement made between the Council and Mr W became payable when he attended College 1. Mr W says he has met all the criteria of the agreement. I consider the Council has too.
  8. Mr W says he is not taking a new degree but changing the route of achieving the same qualification as initially agreed to be funded by the council. The Council agreed support at University F for a three-year BSc. The HND and a top up are two different courses at two different locations.
  9. The Council said, in its complaint response at Stage Two, “The agreement in place, signed on 2nd of August 2017 is to solely fund the 2-year HND course, there are no further contracts in place”. Mr W says that this agreement was a yearly financial agreement which was a prerequisite of the initial contract. On the balance of probabilities, the Council took this as evidence Mr W was transferring funding to the HND rather than using it for a degree.
  10. Mr W says that the council’s withdrawal of the agreement is unreasonable as its rigidity does not reflect what is in the best interests for his education. The Stage Two investigator said the Council “could not support a new enrolment to another course (given Mr W was) beyond the age of 25”. The legal advice the Council received was “the refusal of funding for the proposed degree year is appropriately clarified in his Pathway Plan because (Mr W) would be enrolling in a new and separate course to the one he is undertaking after his 25th birthday”. The Head of Service stated at Stage Two; “she could not (agree to fund an extra year of study) for every care leaver, and so could not set the precedent”, although this fetters the Council’s discretion to treat each case on its own merits.
  11. None of the Council’s statements show the Council has considered whether funding the top-up year is in Mr W’s best interests. Mr W’s 2016 Pathway Plan, written before he was 25, shows he wanted to achieve a degree. On this basis, I consider the failure to consider whether funding a further year to enable Mr W to complete a BSc, in accordance with his stated aim, is fault. The Council is asked to do this now. The Council has said to me it is prepared to provide part funding for Mr W’s final year. It believes he would also be able to work. Mr W’s advocate points out that Mr W would struggle if he had to work as ‘because of his learning difficulty Mr W needs more time to process information, thus more time to study than the average student’. For Mr W, working would adversely affect him given it risked ‘tak(ing) substantial time out for study’. The Council should take this into account as part of its decision making.
  12. The Council has accepted there was delay in the complaints process, including a four-month delay to get to Stage Two. It noted that delay caused Mr W anxiety and apologised. I consider this is sufficient to remedy the fault.

Agreed action

  1. For the Council to consider whether funding a third year of study, to enable Mr W to complete his goal of a BSc degree, is in his best interests and is in accordance with his needs. It should tell me what action it will take within three months of the date of this decision.

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Final decision

  1. There is evidence of fault leading to injustice for Mr W and the Council has agreed an action to address that fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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