The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs F complains the Council delayed arranging a school admission appeal for her son. The Ombudsman has found no fault.
- Mrs F complains the Council delayed arranging a school admission appeal for her son, D, for admission to School X.
- Mrs F says as a result the family has been unable to prepare for the start to school and there is a financial impact in relation to school uniform.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information Mrs F sent, the Council’s response to my enquiries and:
- The School Admissions (Infant Class Sizes) (England) Regulations 2012
- The School Admissions Appeals Code 2014 (“the Code”)
- The School Admissions (England) (Coronavirus) (Appeals Arrangements) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (“the temporary regulations”)
- Non-statutory guidance April 2020: Changes to the admission appeals regulations during the coronavirus outbreak
What I found
- In the normal admissions round parents apply to the local authority in which they live for places at their preferred schools. If a school is oversubscribed, a school's admission authority must rank applications in order against its published oversubscription criteria and send that list back to the local authority. All preferences are collated and parents then receive an offer from the local authority at the highest preference school at which a place is available. The law says the size of an infant class must not be more than 30 pupils per teacher.
- Parents have the right to appeal against a decision to refuse admission. The admission authority must establish an independent appeals panel to hear the appeal. Appeals must be heard within 40 school days of the deadline for lodging appeals. The panel will decide whether to uphold or dismiss the appeal.
Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
- In April 2020, the Government introduced emergency legislation to give admission authorities and appeal panels flexibility when dealing with appeals during the Coronavirus outbreak.
- The temporary regulations amended the deadlines for hearing school appeals set out in the Code. They say appeals should be determined “as soon as is reasonably practicable”. Admission authorities were asked to review any arrangements they already had in place to ensure they complied with the temporary regulations.
- Mrs F applied for her son, D, to start primary school, her preferred school was School X. The Council said School X was full and refused the application. It instead offered D a place at School Y, which was his nearest school with a place available. Mrs F appealed against the Council's decision in April 2020.
- Mrs F complained to the Council on 6 August 2020 that she had still not had a date set for the appeal hearing. In response the Council said, “there had been an extended period during which its protocol for the Independent Appeals Panel to hear the appeals was developed due to changing legal advice”. As the admissions authority had not yet supplied the paperwork for the School X appeals the Council could not confirm the timescale for hearing Mrs F’s appeal.
- Mrs F complained to the Ombudsman. She said School X had indicated it was willing to admit D and had a space.
The Council’s response to our enquiries
- In response to our enquiries the Council said that, following publication of the temporary regulations, it had agreed its revised protocol for dealing with school admissions appeals on 1 July 2020. It had provided additional resourcing to service appeals but, due to the sheer volume of appeals and in order not to overwhelm the teams, it had decided to stagger the schedule of work for completing paperwork for the appeals.
- The process for arranging appeals had started on 28 July and secondary appeals were completed first. The Council started to deal with the paperwork for the primary appeals on 26 August. The schedule for School X was received by the admissions authority on 24 September and the case papers for Mrs F’s appeal were submitted on 7 October. Mrs F’s appeal panel hearing had now been arranged for November 2020.
- The Council said the published admission number at School X was 15 and whilst the current Reception class would be taught in a group of less than 30, in September 2021 the class would be taught with children in Year 2 to form a class of 30. This was the maximum number allowed for an infant class.
- The non-statutory guidance urges admissions authorities to determine appeals before the start of the September 2020 term wherever possible and says appeals should be determined “as soon as is reasonably practicable”.
- I would therefore expect the Council to have planned how it would deal with the appeals and to have considered how to prioritise its workload. It was also required to review its existing arrangements to ensure they complied with the temporary regulations.
- The Council has taken these steps and has responded to the situation by increasing resources and staggering the casework. Whilst I understand Mrs F’s frustration at the length of time it has taken to arrange the appeal, I find the Council has acted without fault.
- There was no fault. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman