The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council failed to properly consider whether it was in the complainant’s son’s best interests to join reception or year one when he starts school in September 2018. The Council has agreed to review its decision and issue guidance to its staff.
- Ms B complains that there were failings in the way the Council determined her application for her summer-born son to join reception, rather than year one, in September 2018 when he reaches compulsory school age.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- 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 investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
- considered evidence from the Council and the company it uses to provide education services;
- discussed the issues with the complainant and the Council’s representative;
- considered the School Admissions Code and guidance published by the Department for Education;
- sought clarification from the Department for Education and considered its comments; and
- given the Council and the complainant the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- The School Admissions Code (the Code) requires school admission authorities to provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. But parents can decide not to send their child to school until they reach compulsory school age, which is the term following their fifth birthday.
- The Code also allows parents to seek a place for their child outside of their normal age group. This includes situations where the parents of a summer-born child (born between 01 April and 31 August) choose not to send their child to school until the September following their fifth birthday. The parents can ask the admissions authority to admit their child to reception rather than year one.
- The Code states that admission authorities must make such decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child. This includes considering the parent’s views, information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development, and whether the child was born prematurely. Admission authorities must also consider the views of head teachers. When telling a parent of their decision, admission authorities must set out clearly the reasons for their decision.
- To help admission authorities deal with requests for summer-born children to be educated out of their normal year group, the Department for Education has published non-statutory guidance. This is in the document “Advice on the admission of summer-born children – For local authorities, school admission authorities and parents”.
- The guidance states that admission authorities will be required to take account of the child’s individual needs and abilities and to consider whether these can best be met in reception or year one. This should involve taking account of the potential impact on the child of being admitted to year one without first having completed the reception year. The head teacher’s views are an important part of this consideration.
- The guidance says that in general, children should be educated in their normal age group and they should only be educated out of their usual age group in very limited circumstances. However, it goes on to say that parental requests for summer born children are different from any other request for admission out of the usual age group, and parents of summer born children must be able to make a decision about whether their child is ready to go to school before compulsory school age confident that, if they decide not to send them to school until age five, the decision about the year group they should be admitted to at that point will be made in the child’s best interests.
Department for Education correspondence with the Ombudsman
- In March 2018, the Department for Education confirmed that requests for summer born children to be admitted to reception at the age of five should be agreed in any circumstances where it is in the child’s best interests to do so. It does not consider such requests should only be agreed in very limited circumstances. Its view is that, when considering pupils generally, there will be very limited circumstances in which it is appropriate to educate a child outside their normal age group. But it does not believe this is necessarily the case when considering summer born children whose parents have requested they are admitted to reception at age five.
- Parents should receive a response to their request for admission outside of the normal age group before primary national offer day. This is in the April of the year the child becomes four. The Department has confirmed to the Ombudsman that the admission authority must clearly explain why it decided, on the basis of the circumstances of the individual case, it would be in the best interests of the child to be admitted to reception or year one in the September of the following calendar year. The Department acknowledges it will not always be easy for an admission authority to make a decision so far in advance.
Background to the complaint
- Ms B’s son, J, was four years old in June 2017. She told the Council that she would be sending J to school in September 2018, the term following his fifth birthday, and asked if he could start in reception at that time.
- Ms B provided supporting letters from J’s nursery and the head teacher of his preferred primary school which both stated they considered it was in J’s best interests to start in reception, rather than year one, in September 2018. Ms B also provided evidence from a Paediatrician and a Speech and Language Therapist.
- The Council considered the evidence provided and contacted the nursery and head teacher for further information. Two Evidenced Based Assessments were carried out which demonstrated the progress J had made between February and March 2017. The Council considered the head teacher’s further comments that keeping J in nursery was holding him back and J’s additional needs could be met through SEN (Special Educational Needs) support.
- In March 2017, the Council decided to refuse Ms B’s request for J to join reception in September 2018. It explained that it considered it was in J’s best interests to start school in reception in September 2017. The Council did not consider whether J should join reception or year one in September 2018. It does not consider it is possible to make an informed decision on the extent of progress a child can make so far in advance of their admission.
- Ms B considers the Council applied the wrong test when refusing her application. She says that she had already decided that J would not be starting school until September 2018, and so the decision the Council had to reach was whether it was in his best interests to join reception or year one in September 2018, not what was in his best interests in September 2017.
- The decision the Council had to make was whether it would be in J’s best interests to join reception or year one in September 2018. While it is difficult for admission authorities to make this decision so far in advance of the child’s admission to school, this is the decision it is required to make.
- The Council refused Ms B’s request because it considered J was ready to start school in September 2017 and would be held back by starting in reception a year later. Ms B had already decided that she was not sending J to school until September 2018, as was her right. The Council failed to consider whether J’s needs could best be met in reception or year one in September 2018 and it did not take account of the potential impact on J of joining year one in September 2018 without first having completed the reception year. This was fault.
- The Council is concerned that our view will mean it will be very limited in the decisions it can reach and may be at risk of taking a blanket approach to any parental requests for deferred entry. We do not agree. This will be a matter for the professional judgement of those responsible for making that decision at the time, after consideration of the individual merits of the case. The Council can reach the view that the child’s level of development and the support the school could provide in year one, could make entry into that year appropriate and in the child’s best interests.
- The Council has agreed to review its decision and properly consider whether it is in J’s best interests to join reception or year one in September 2018. It will also issue guidance to its staff to ensure they are properly following the Code and government guidance when determining applications for summer born children to be educated outside of their normal age group. The Council will take these actions within four weeks of my final decision.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold Ms B’s complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice. The action the Council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman