The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complains of fault in the way the Council decided to close the school her son attends. The Ombudsman has not found evidence of fault in the Council’s decision-making.
- Mrs X complains about the Council’s decision making when it decided to amalgamate the secondary school attended by one of her children with another secondary school. Specifically she complains that the Council relied on inaccurate information when making the decision to close a secondary school attended by her child and failed to properly consider the representations of those who opposed closure. Mrs X also complains about the Council’s communication with parents throughout the process.
- Mrs X says that this decision has had a negative impact on her children. She says her son’s education in Year 11 has been disrupted and put at risk. She also says her daughter was unable to take up an offer of a Year 7 place at the school and now attends a secondary school some distance from the family home incurring substantial travel expenses for the family.
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 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, sections 26(1), 26A(1) and 34(3), as amended)
- 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)
- 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)
- We cannot investigate complaints about what happens in schools. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5, paragraph 5(b), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I discussed the complaint with Mrs X and considered the information she provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries. I considered relevant law and guidance on school closures. I gave the Council and the complainant an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Statutory guidance ‘Opening and closing maintained schools’ sets out the statutory process for closing and amalgamating maintained schools under sections 15 and 19 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 as follows.
- The local authority or the Governing Body of the school may propose the closure.
- There is a statutory consultation period, which should last at least six weeks.
- The local authority publishes the proposal. It must publish it on its website and send copies to a range of people and bodies including the Secretary of State, parents of pupils at the school and any other body or person the proposer thinks is appropriate. It must give four weeks for people to send in objections or comments.
- The guidance lists the range of people and bodies that the local authority should consult including the Governing Body of the school (as appropriate), pupils at the school, school staff, parents of children at the school and others who may be affected and any other groups, organisations or individuals it feels it is appropriate to consult.
- The proposal must include details of the reason the local authority considers closure necessary, the numbers of pupils attending the school, the availability of places elsewhere for pupils to transfer to, details of journeys to alternative schools and proposed travel arrangements for displaced pupils to other schools, including how to minimise increased use of cars.
- Reasons to close a maintain school may include:
- wider school reorganisation which means the school is no longer needed, because for example there are surplus places elsewhere or there is no predicted demand for the school in the medium or long term;
- it is to be amalgamated with another school; or
- it has been judged inadequate by Ofsted
- Under the Council’s constitution where the Director of Children’s Services receives a request from a Governing Body of a school for consultation on school closure, the Director is delegated in consultation with the Executive Member for Education to carry out the first consultation phase within six weeks.
- At the end of this consultation phase a report is presented to the Executive Member for Education to consider. The Executive Member decides how to proceed. If he decides to issue the public notice, the four-week statutory consultation period takes place.
- At the end of this period the Executive Member considers a further report setting out all the responses received and making a recommendation. The Executive Member for Education considers the report and recommendation and makes a decision on the proposal.
- Mrs X has two children, a son, S, and a younger daughter, D. In 2016 S was attending School 1. D was at primary school and due to transfer to secondary school in September 2017. Mrs X applied for a place for D at School 1.
- School 1 is a community school which is in a federation with a larger school, School 2. On 11 January 2017 the Governing Body of School 1 wrote to the Council asking it to propose amalgamating the two schools. Reasons included a fall in numbers attending the School, which was expected to continue, the effect this has on reducing the budget for the School, and a history of poor Ofsted inspection ratings.
- 19 January 2017 the Council started the statutory consultation process. It placed the proposal on its website. It wrote to parents of pupils of the schools concerned, other local schools and other interested groups and individuals. The proposal was to amalgamate School 1 and School 2 by closing School 1. Mrs X received a copy of the consultation letter. It gave the reasons for the proposals relating to the decline in pupil numbers and poor performance of the School. It advised of the six-week consultation period, ending on 2 March 2017, and the next steps in the process. It explained how people could respond in writing by post, email or on-line. It also offered three public ‘consultation drop-in sessions’, one at each school and one at a local community centre. It said Council officers would be available at the sessions to discuss the proposals, answer questions and receive comments.
- Mrs X attended the last of the public sessions in February 2017 and spoke to one of the officers present. Following the meeting Mrs X wrote to the Executive Member for Education with her objections to the closure of School 1 and he replied.
- On 1 March 2017, national offer day, when parents receive offers of school places for the following academic year, Mrs X also wrote to the senior officer from Children’s Services who had attended the consultation meeting she went to, Officer W. Mrs X said her daughter was one of a number of children who had been offered a place at School 1. Because of the proposed amalgamation of School 1 with School 2 she noted the Council had offered to transfer her daughter to School 2, but she said she did not wish to take up this offer as she did not consider the school suitable because of its poor Ofsted ratings. She said she now needed to look for alternative places and the Admissions Team had told her it would treat any applications as in-year applications. She said this would disadvantage her child. She asked the Council to suspend any further offers or transfers until she and the other parents in her position had secured alternative places for their children.
- Officer W replied the same day. She explained why the Council could not suspend the process as she had asked. It said it had to follow the law and the School Admissions Code. This meant that now that national offer day had passed, parents had a right to apply for other school places. The Council had to consider these in line with the in-year admissions process. Parents could keep their offers for places at School 1 until they received offers for a place at another school. The officer said the Council could not assume the outcome of the school closure consultation and had to progress in the usual way in the meantime.
- In mid-March 2017 the Council produced a ‘decision report’ on the outcome of the public consultation to be put to the Executive Member for Education. The Council made the report available to the public. Mrs X wrote to the Council with queries about the origin of data included in report and about the consultation process. The Council replied the following day.
- On 20 March the Executive Member for Education considered the report. The report explained the background to the merger proposal. It covered the poor performance of the School, the work done to help it improve, the fall in applications, and the availability of places elsewhere. It set out the results of the consultation, other options suggested, how they were considered, and responses to issues raised in the consultation, including home to school travel. It considered the possible impact of a new housing development on the demand for school places, and the impact of the closure on the admissions process for current Year 6 children moving to secondary school. The conclusion of the report was a recommendation to publish a public notice to close School 1 and amalgamate it with School 2. The report said the Council considered this would provide the best opportunity for school improvement. The Executive Member for Education agreed with the recommendation.
- The Council issued the public notice on 24 March 2017 proposing the amalgamation and giving four weeks to respond.
- At the end of March Mrs X wrote to the Executive Member for Education saying there were mistakes in the report that the Council had presented to him. The examples she gave were:
- failure to include the questions she put at a consultation meeting in the minutes;
- mistakes in the travel impact assessment concerning the numbers of children travelling by bicycle to School 1 and numbers who would now need to travel by car or bus to School 2; and
- problems with the online system when responses to the consultation were submitted.
- In response to her complaint about lack of time for the Governing Body to consider the proposal, the Council said it was up to the Chair of Governors who chaired the meeting how much time to allow.
- It gave the history of the steps taken to try and help the School improve.
- It said it had fulfilled the statutory requirements for consultation.
- It recognised the admission arrangements caused difficulty but said it had administered them correctly and she had had an opportunity to choose another school for D.
- It did not accept the information it presented to the Executive Member for Education or to the public was wrong, and confirmed the Member had been well briefed. It denied it had lied or deceived anyone or used false information.
- It did not consider any compensation was due as it said it had followed correct processes. On the school transport decision, it said this was discretionary and it was not prepared to extend the offer beyond two years.
Analysis – was there fault causing injustice?
- The Council followed the process set out in law and statutory guidance for deciding on school closure. Mrs X accepts this and has not complained about the steps taken. But she says the Council based its decision on incorrect information, and the decision should be made by a panel of people, not solely by one councillor.
- In her complaint to the Ombudsman Mrs X did not identify what information was wrong or how she considers it affected the decision. She said this was a matter raised by another parent at one of the consultation meetings. She believes it related to numbers applying for places at School 1. The Council has explained that this is a fluid situation and it cannot update its assessment each time numbers change. But it is satisfied it collected data from a variety of sources and says it did not present incorrect information to the public or the Executive Member for Education. Without further details of what Mrs X believes was wrong, I cannot follow this issue up any further.
- In her letter to the Executive Member for Education Mrs X raised a question about travel arrangements to School 1. I cannot say the Council was at fault for basing its figures about travel arrangements at the time on the annual survey of parents. In reaching its decision the Council considered travel arrangements in detail. It also took account of the fact that its School Travel Plan team would be working on identifying sustainable methods of travel to school. But even if the data about the number of children travelling to school by any particular method was not as up to date as it could have been, Mrs X has not provided any information or argument to suggest this would have affected the overall decision.
- Mrs X is not happy with the fact that the Executive Member for Education is the sole decision-maker on school closures. However this method of deciding on school closure and amalgamation is in line with the Council’s constitution. Officers provided the councillor with thorough and detailed reports setting out relevant information, as required in the statutory guidance. I cannot say the Council was at fault in reaching its decision this way, even if Mrs X would prefer a different model.
- In my view the Council has given a satisfactory explanation in response to the complaint that the governors at School 1 did not have enough time to discuss the proposal. Any complaint about the way the governors ran the meeting is outside the Ombudsman’s remit. But I have not seen evidence of fault by the Council in the information provided to the Governing Body, especially as it was the Governing Body who asked the Council to trigger the consultation process because of its own concerns about the future viability of the School.
- I am also satisfied with the Council’s explanation in relation to the minutes of the consultation meeting. Minutes cannot capture every comment and question put at a meeting. In any event I have not seen any evidence that if the question Mrs X asked was not included this had any effect on the decision made.
- It is unfortunate for Mrs X and her daughter that they were waiting for an offer of a school place at the same time as the consultation was underway on the closure of School 1 where she had applied for a place. The Council offered all successful applicants places at School 2 but Mrs X exercised her right to express a preference for another school and was successful. The Council has explained why it had to continue with the normal admission arrangements during the consultation period and could not pre-judge outcome. As the Council was following the requirements of the School Admissions Code I cannot criticise it for taking this approach. I recognise this left Mrs X with difficult choices for the education of both her children. But this was the result of the fact that the proposal had to go through the consultation process, not of any fault in that process.
- Mrs X wants the Council to offer five years’ free transport to those transferring from School 1 to School 2. But this does not affect her own children and so I will not pursue this matter further.
- She also feels she should receive compensation in the form of help with transport costs to School 3. She does not accept the Council’s position that it will not offer help as she would have had free transport if she had taken up the place offered at School 2 and it was her choice to send D elsewhere. She says she had no choice as School 2 was failing and so was not suitable for her daughter. However the Ombudsman can only recommend a financial remedy where the injustice arises as a direct result of fault by the Council. In this case I have not found fault in the process of school closure and so I have no grounds to recommend a remedy for any negative impact going to a different school may have.
- I have not found evidence of fault causing injustice in the way the Council dealt with the closure of School 1 and so I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman