St. Michaels Catholic School (20 001 955)

Category : Education > COVID-19

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 18 Nov 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs Q complained the independent appeals panel had failed to properly consider her appeal for a school place for her son, R. This had caused the family significant upset. The investigation found no evidence of fault.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall call Mrs Q, complains there was fault in the way the admission appeals panel considered her appeal for her son, R.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether authorities followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to Covid-19”.
  2. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether an independent school admissions appeals panel’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider if there was fault in the way the decision was reached. If we find fault, which calls into question the panel’s decision, we may ask for a new appeal hearing. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  3. If we are satisfied with an independent school appeal panel’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 considered the information Mrs Q provided with her complaint. I made enquiries of the Council and assessed its response. I sent the school and Mrs Q a copy of my draft decision and took any comments they made into account before issuing a decision.

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What I found

Statutory guidance

  1. Statutory guidance about school admissions and appeals can be found in the School Admissions Code and School Admission Appeals Code (2012). Both are published by the Department for Education.
  2. In 2020 emergency regulations were introduced because of COVID-19. These are the School Admissions (England) (Coronavirus) (Appeals Arrangements) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (the 2020 regulations). They temporarily amend parts of the 2012 regulations and will be in force until 31 January 2021.
  3. The 2012 regulations say that appeal panels must allow appellants the opportunity to appear in person and present their case. The 2020 emergency regulations state that where face-to-face hearings cannot not take place, they should be conducted by telephone or video conference. The appeal panel can decide to hold the hearing remotely if they are satisfied that:
      1. the parties will be able to present their cases fully
      2. each participant has access to video or telephone facilities allowing them to engage in the hearing at all time
      3. the appeal hearing is capable of being heard fairly and transparently in this way
  4. Where this is not possible, the 2020 guidance says appeals can be conducted entirely based on written submissions. For the panel to make a decision which is fair and transparent, they must ensure that the parties are able to fully present their case by way of written submissions.
  5. The structure of appeals is set out in the 2012 Code. For non-infant classes, they are held in two stages. At the first stage, the panel has to confirm that the admission arrangements comply with the mandatory requirements of the School Admissions Code and that the arrangements were correctly and impartially applied in the case in question. At the end of the first stage, the panel decides whether the admission of additional children would ‘prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources’. In other words, whether the school could allow any more children in without making it difficult for it to educate existing pupils.
  6. If the panel decides there would be prejudice, it goes to the second stage. At this stage ‘the panel must balance the prejudice to the school against the appellant’s case for the child to be admitted to the school. It must take into account the appellant’s reasons for expressing a preference for the school, including what that school can offer the child that the allocated or other schools cannot’.
  7. I am considering Mrs Q’s appeal in the light of the 2012 and 2020 appeals guidance.

Background

  1. Mrs Q applied to two secondary schools for a place for her son R.
  2. She was unsuccessful and was allocated a third school for R, which was some distance from her home.
  3. Mrs Q appealed to her first-choice school.
  4. The independent appeal panel said that, because of the coronavirus, it had decided to carry out appeals in writing. It is able to make this decision.
  5. I have seen evidence the independent appeal panel asked her questions about her case. She had the opportunity to question the school’s case. The information was considered, and circulated, appropriately. Mrs Q had an opportunity to say, at any point, if she did not understand or needed help.

The appeal

  1. At stage one of the process, the panel decided the school was full and that the admission arrangements had been properly applied to R. It was acknowledged that Mrs Q had not filled out a Supplementary Information Form for R. She said she was not aware that one was required but the information on the school’s website and the information in the Council’s ‘How to apply online’ booklet (which it tells parents to read before they apply) is also clear that one is required. There is no evidence of fault. The panel moved to stage two of the hearing.
  2. At stage two of the appeal, Mrs Q did not argue that the school could offer R something the allocated school could not. She said R’s sibling would be starting at the nursery school in September so it would be easier to have both at the same site. It was also closer to her home address than the allocated school and it had a better reputation. She said it would be difficult to get R to the allocated school because of a lack of buses.

Decision making

  1. The panel decided the prejudice to R for not going to the school was not as great as the prejudice to the school having to take another pupil. It did not allow the appeal. It wrote to Mrs Q and set out its reasons. There is no evidence of fault.
  2. Mrs Q said she would keep R at home if he did not get a place at the school. If she does this, Mrs Q has to provide him with “appropriate full-time education” following the requirements of the Education Act 1996. Alternatively, she can ask her local Council to identify a school with places and/or apply for school transport for R if the allocated school is over 3 miles away. I note she has also placed R on the waiting list for the school.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of fault.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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