Suffolk County Council (15 012 782)

Category : Education > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 08 Mar 2016

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There is no evidence of fault in the way the Council made the decision about the school closure. It is not the role of the Ombudsman to consider the merits of a decision when there is no evidence of fault. The complaint is not upheld.

The complaint

  1. Mr A complains about the Council’s decision to close schools in his area, which he says was predetermined and taken with bias. As a result of the closure, one of his children will have to travel further to attend school.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints of injustice caused by maladministration and service failure. I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the written information provided by Mr A and by the Council. Both Mr A and the Council had the opportunity to consider and comment on an earlier draft of this statement before I reached a final decision.

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What I found

  1. There is a statutory process that local authorities must go through when proposing and deciding on school closures and mergers. This is set out in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and Regulations made under the Act.
  2. The statutory process for school closures has five stages. Stage 1 (the consultation stage) has no prescribed timescale but a minimum of six weeks is recommended, avoiding school and public holidays. Stage 2, one day, is the publication of the closure proposal. Stage 3 (the representation phase) has a prescribed timescale of four weeks. Stage 4 is the decision phase which should not take more than two months (or it will be referred to the Schools Adjudicator). Stage 5 is the implementation phase which has no fixed timescale but must adhere to the timescale advertised in the published notice of closure.

What happened

  1. The County Council has previously operated a 3-tier education system. In 2013 it put forward proposals to move to a largely 2-tier system, which would involve the closure of several middle schools in the area.
  2. The Council’s records showed that it adhered to the five stage statutory process. In June 2014 the Council took the decision to close the middle schools as planned.
  3. In February 2015 Mr A wrote to the Council objecting to the decision to close School A. He said his youngest child, who should have attended School A, would now have to travel several miles through the town centre to attend the one remaining middle school from which he would then be able to attend the upper school next door to their home. He said the decision had the appearance of being pre-determined and the Council had taken the decision in the face of local opposition. He said there would be a significant effect on the children of two local estates.
  4. The Council responded. It said (and provided evidence) that the decision was taken after extensive public consultation involving over 1500 people. It said the Council had given particular scrutiny to the effect of the proposed closures on the two estates (designated as an area of social deprivation) and pointed to the discussion about those estates in the reports available to elected members.
  5. Mr A was dissatisfied with the Council’s response and asked it to investigate further. The Council said it was not prepared to commit resources to further investigation.
  6. Mr A complained to the Ombudsman. He argues that the Council planned the closure as long ago as 2009 and says the decision it has taken, in the face of the evidence, is so unreasonable that no reasonable council would have taken it.

Analysis

  1. Mr A is understandably disappointed that the outcome of the consultation process was not what he wanted. The evidence shows there was considerable local opposition to the Council’s proposals. The decision to close the school near Mr A’s home will affect one of his children and have an impact on the child’s journey to school.
  2. However, there is no evidence that the Council failed to follow the statutory procedure properly. In the absence of any evidence of fault, the Ombudsman cannot substitute her judgement for that of the Council or question the merits of a decision taken properly, however much someone may dislike or disagree with it. The decision to close the school is not a decision which is so unreasonable that no reasonable council would have taken it.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of fault on the part of the Council.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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