The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there was no fault in the way the Council carried out consultation on a proposed reorganisation of schools and handled Mrs X’s correspondence.
- Mrs X complains about the way the Council conducted a public consultation on school reorganisation in one area of the county. She says the Council:
- did not properly conduct the consultation about planning for the future of the schools in the area;
- did not investigate her allegations that a named Councillor made dishonest statements at public meetings;
- wasted public money reorganising the school structure at a time of austerity.
Mrs X considers the outcome of the public consultation was a foregone conclusion because the Council had already decided on detailed proposals for school reorganisation.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated parts a) and b) of the complaint. I did not investigate part c) for the reasons given in paragraphs 51 and 52.
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)
- We cannot investigate something that affects all or most of the people in a council’s area. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(7), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I discussed the complaint with Mrs X. I considered all the information she sent me and the Council’s response to my enquiries. I considered officer’s reports and minutes of relevant Council meetings and decisions. I read notes of relevant public meetings, the consultation documents and analysis of responses.
- I sent my draft decision to Mrs X and the Council and considered their comments.
What I found
- Decisions to close schools must be made in accordance with the statutory framework. [Education and Inspections Act 2006 (as amended) and the School Organisation (Establishment and Discontinuance of Schools) Regulations 2013. (as amended)]
- Local authorities must have regard to statutory guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) on proposals to open or close maintained schools.(Opening and Closing Maintained Schools – statutory guidance for proposers and decision-makers –DfE - April 2016)
- The guidance explains the five stages in the statutory process for opening or closing a maintained school:
- Stage One – informal or pre-consultation – recommended to last a minimum of six weeks;
- Stage Two – publication of the statutory notice and proposal;
- Stage Three – representation – a minimum period of four weeks from the date the statutory notice is published to give time for representations to be made – this is the formal consultation stage;
- Stage Four – decision – to be made by local authority within two months- otherwise it falls to the Schools Adjudicator;
- Stage Five – implementation – no prescribed timescale but the date must be the one given in the statutory notice.
“the decision-maker will need to be satisfied that the appropriate fair and open local consultation and/or representation period has been carried out and that the proposer has given full consideration to all the responses received. If the proposer has failed to meet the statutory requirements, a proposal may be deemed invalid and therefore should be rejected. The decision-maker must consider all the views submitted, including all support for, objections to and comments on the proposal”.
The background to this complaint
- One of Mrs X’s children is currently a Year 5 pupil in a community first school. The school caters for pupils from reception year to Year 5.
- Mrs X lives in the only remaining part of the county which still has a three tier structure for maintained schools. Children transfer from first school to an intermediate school at the age of 10 (year 6). They then move to a secondary school at the age of 13 (in Year 9). The rest of West Sussex has a two tier school structure where pupils transfer to secondary school at the start of Year 7.
- In June 2001 the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) recommended that the Council should review the different ages of admission and school transfer and make long term plans to develop a consistent system.
- Mrs X lives in an area affected by the Council’s proposals for school reorganisation. One of her children is due to leave his first school in July 2017. Under the existing arrangements, he would have transferred to an intermediate college for Years 6 to 8 and then to another secondary school for Years 9 to 11.
- Mrs X says it is not yet clear which school her son will attend from September 2017. The Council is planning alternative provision for pupils who are affected by the closure of the intermediate college during the transitional period.
- Mrs X says the decision to close a successful college, and the uncertainty about the alternative provision, has been very upsetting and unsettling for parents and children.
Outline of the Council’s consultation process
- The Council ran a two phase public consultation at Stage One of the statutory process.
- The Council published booklets explaining its proposals at both phases of the consultation. The booklet included a response form. Parents, pupils, school staff and governors and other members of the community were invited to express their views. They could submit comments through the consultation hub on the Council’s website or by completing the response form.
- The Council arranged public meetings in the villages and schools affected by the proposals. Councillors and senior officers attended the meetings to discuss the proposals, listen to comments and get feedback.
Phase One of the informal consultation
- In early July 2015 the Council published a consultation booklet about the general principles for future organisation of schools in the area. The booklet made it clear that this first consultation was only on the principles it should use to develop options for the schools. One of the key principles was that schools should be organised in line with the key stages in the National Curriculum. The booklet set out the proposed principles and the rationale for them. It said it intended to implement any changes to schools in September 2017.
- Mrs X was one of about 300 people who attended a public meeting held in a village hall on 8 July. The event was arranged to enable Councillors and members of the local community to discuss the proposals and comment on the broad principles for secondary education in the area. Senior Council officers outlined the proposals, answered questions and and listened to the views of those who attended.
- Mrs X complains that the Cabinet Member for Education knowingly made a dishonest statement at the meeting. She says he stated there were no plans to make changes to the intermediate school which she wanted her son to attend from September 2017.
- Mrs X also complains that the Council withheld information because it did not mention the proposed closure of the intermediate school in the first consultation paper.
- I have read the minutes of the meeting held on 8 July 2015. They include a summary of some questions and comments from members of the public, headteachers and responses from a senior manager. The minutes do not record the Cabinet Member making comments about the future of the intermediate school. When answering questions from the public, a senior manager made it clear that the consultation at this stage was to consider the general principles for school reorganisation and not proposals for specific schools.
- Following the meeting, Mrs X responded to the consultation. The consultation period was 10 weeks and closed on 18 September 2015. The Council received 1,012 responses.
- Another public meeting was held in late September 2015 after the consultation had closed. About 90 parents, school staff and governors attended, including Mrs X. The Cabinet Member for Education and senior Council officers were also present.
- The minutes of the September meeting say the Cabinet Member explained officers were still analysing the consultation responses. He said had no preconceived idea about the next stage. Mrs X said the Cabinet Member said Year 6 pupils had to be educated in primary schools. She said this proves the consultation exercise was not fit for purpose because a decision had already been made.
- The minutes do not record this statement. They record the Cabinet Member’s closing comments. He reiterated that the consultation so far had been about the general principles for school reorganisation. He said the Council was being pressed nationally to change to a two tier system. He said no decision had yet been made about the closure of the intermediate school. He said he would like to retain some form of secondary education there.
- In December 2015 the Cabinet Member for Education and Skills considered a report on the first phase of the Stage One consultation. It included a statistical analysis of responses and a summary of comments and observations made by respondents. A narrow majority of respondents (44.30% to 43.24%) were opposed to children transferring to secondary school at the age of 11. The Cabinet Member agreed to approve the second phase of the informal consultation to seek views on proposals for specific schools, including a proposal to move Year 6 to the existing primary schools and close the intermediate school.
Phase Two of the informal consultation
- The second phase of the consultation ran from 4 January 2016 until 12 February. The Council produced a new consultation booklet and response form.
- The booklet included the proposal to close the intermediate school, move Year 6 pupils to first schools and make alternative provision for Years 7 and 8 on the same site. It set out the range of options the Council had considered and the benefits and disadvantages of each one. It provided additional information in a question and answer format. The Council had arranged four public meetings in local schools. There was a response form for making comments.
- On 6 January 2016 Mrs X wrote to the Cabinet Member for Education. She headed the letter – “Consultation – planning the STARS area schools for the future”. She set out her views as a parent of a child whose education would be directly affected by the proposed closure of the intermediate school. She also stated her preferences for changes to primary schools and supported the enlargement of the existing intermediate school to create a small secondary school. She considered the outcome of the consultation was a foregone conclusion because there was pressure at national level for the Council to move to a two tier education system.
- An officer replied on behalf of the Cabinet Member on 8 January. She confirmed she had passed the letter to the School Consultations team to be considered along with other consultation responses. She assured Mrs X the Cabinet Member would consider the officers’ analysis of the responses.
- The Council received 1,671 valid responses to the second phase consultation. 74.58% of the respondents opposed the proposal to close the intermediate school.
- The Cabinet Member for Education attended a public meeting held at the intermediate school later in January 2016. About 200 parents and members of the public attended along with senior Council officers, school staff and governors.
- On 18 April the Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee considered a report from the Executive Director about the proposals for school reorganisation. It included a quantitative analysis of the consultation responses and a selection of comments made by those who supported and objected to the proposals. The Committee listened to the views expressed by Headteachers of some of the schools affected by the proposals and the Chair of Governors of the intermediate school. Various Councillors also spoke at the meeting. At the end of the meeting the Committee endorsed the proposed decision to close the intermediate school.
- On 4 May 2016 the Leader of the Council considered the Select Committee report and recommendation. She decided to approve the closure of the intermediate school and the opening of an annexe to a grammar school. The Leader made the decision because the Cabinet Member for Education was absent for health reasons.
- Later in May the Council published the statutory notice required at Stage Two of the consultation process. It gave a period of four weeks from 19 May to 16 June for representations to be made.
Mrs X’s complaint
- On 27 May Mrs X wrote to the Leader of the Council. She raised concerns about the way the Council had handled the consultation process. She also expressed the view that the reorganisation was a waste of public money. She included 21 questions in her letter. An officer in the School Consultations team sent an acknowledgement on 1 June.
- In early July Mrs X contacted the Director of Law to complain that she had not received a reply. The Director said he viewed the letter as a response to the consultation process. He explained that individual replies were not sent because of the large volume of correspondence generated by the consultation process. He did not consider Mrs X’s letter raised issues requiring a separate response outside the consultation process.
- Later in July Mrs X made a complaint to the Chief Executive because she did not consider the Director of Law’s response was acceptable. She said she had expected a reply to both letters and they were not simply responses to the consultation. She said she had raised specific concerns about dishonesty and the unprofessional conduct of Councillors, the waste of public money and poor decision-making.
- In late August the Director of Law responded in his capacity as the Council’s Monitoring Officer. He explained it was part of his role to consider complaints about the conduct of elected members of the Council. He confirmed he had read Mrs X’s letters to the Cabinet Member for Education and the Leader of the Council. He did not consider they provided any evidence of misconduct. He said it was not practical to reply to the many questions Mrs X had asked because of the large volume of representations made during the consultation process.
- The Council complied with the statutory framework and guidance for consultation on the proposed school reorganisation and school closure. At Stage One the Council consulted on the general principles for reorganising schools to move from a three tier to a two tier structure. A separate consultation then followed on its proposals for specific schools. At each stage the Council:
- published a consultation document;
- held public meetings;
- invited those affected to express their views; and
- analysed the substantial number of responses it received.
- Mrs X says the Cabinet Member for Education made a dishonest statement at the July 2015 meeting. She also complains that the Council withheld information about the proposed closure of the intermediate school in the first consultation.
- At the time of the July 2015 meeting, no decisions had been made about the future of individual schools in the area. The minutes of the meeting do not record the Cabinet Member making a statement about plans for the intermediate school although I accept they are not a verbatim record. There is insufficient evidence for me to find he made a dishonest statement. In any event it is clear from the minutes that the Council had not made decisions about the future of individual schools at this stage in the process.
- The Council did not withhold information about the proposed closure of the intermediate school from the first consultation questionnaire. In the first phase, the Council was seeking views on the general principles underpinning the school reorganisation. It had not formulated plans for the future of individual schools. Officers and the Cabinet Member reinforced this point when they spoke at public meetings in the first phase. The proposals for individual schools had not been developed because they would be considered in the second phase of the consultation.
- Mrs X expected to receive a comprehensive reply to the letters she sent to the Cabinet Member and the Leader of the Council. But I do not consider it was fault to treat both letters as responses to the consultation. They were both headed “Consultation – planning the STARS area schools for the future” and were sent at times when consultations were open. When councils engage in a large scale public consultation, it is not practical to reply directly to points raised in individual correspondence. The Director of Law found no fault in the way the Council had handled Mrs X’s correspondence following her complaint to the Chief Executive. I do not disagree with that conclusion.
- I did not investigate part c) of Mrs X’s complaint. She considers the school reorganisation is a waste of public money at a time of austerity and when the Council’s budget is under severe pressure.
- However the Council’s spending decisions and its use of public funds affect all or most of the residents in the county equally. So Mrs X has not suffered an injustice above and beyond that suffered by the general public in West Sussex. For this reason I cannot investigate this part of the complaint.
- I have completed the investigation and found no fault in the way the Council carried out the consultation and handled Mrs X’s correspondence.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman