The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complains about the Council’s decision that her son must enter Year 1 rather than Reception when he reaches compulsory school age. There was no fault in how the Council made the decision about the year group in which he should start but the letter giving the final decision did not provide as full an explanation as it should.
- Mrs B complains about the Council’s decision that her son, Y, must enter Year 1 rather than Reception when he reaches compulsory school age in September 2020. She considers the Council has not considered all the relevant information in reaching its decision. Y was born on 31 August so is just before the cut-off date for being in the next school year.
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)
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the complaint and spoke to Mrs B. I asked the Council for its comments on the complaint and additional information. I sent a copy of a draft of this statement to Mrs B and the Council and invited their comments
What I found
- The parents or guardians of a summer born child (that is, one born between 1 April and 31 August) have the option not to send their son or daughter to school until the September following his or her fifth birthday – a year after the point at which they could first have been admitted.
- In this situation, parents or guardians can also ask the school admissions authority to agree to admit their child to reception year, rather than year one at age five. This may be because the parent has concerns about the child’s development, particularly for example where the child was born very prematurely.
- Although parents or guardians can decide not to send their child to school until he or she reaches compulsory school age, they cannot insist their child is admitted to a particular year group. The School Admissions Code (para 2.17A) states that when a parent asks the admission authority to allow their child to enter reception out of their normal year group, “the admission authority must make a decision on the basis of the circumstances of the case and in the best interests of the child concerned”.
- The Code goes on to set out examples of the criteria that should be taken into account by the admissions authority when making that decision: “This will include taking account of the parent’s views; information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional; whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group; and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely. They must also take into account the views of the head teacher of the school concerned.”
- There was a Ministerial statement by the Minister of State for Schools, in 2015, setting out his intention to amend the Code so that summer born children could automatically be admitted to reception at age five where parents or guardians want this. The Minister has since reconfirmed his commitment to making the change when Parliamentary time allows; but this has not yet happened so cannot form part of my consideration.
- The Department for Education has also produced non-statutory guidance on this issue – Advice on the Admission of Summer Born Children. The Ombudsman’s view is generally to expect councils to follow such guidance, or be prepared to evidence why they have chosen to depart from it.
- The guidance reiterates that admission authorities must make decisions based on individual needs and abilities, and consider whether these can best be met by the child starting school in reception or year one. They should also take account of the potential impact on the child of being admitted into year one without first having completed the reception year. To make that decision the guidance states: “It is reasonable for admission authorities to expect parents or guardians to provide them with information in support of their request – since without it they are unlikely to be able to make a decision on the basis of the circumstances of the case.”
- This guidance says, in general, children should be educated in their normal age group and should only be educated out of this age group in very limited circumstances. However, it goes on to say parental requests for summer-born children are “different from any other request for admission out of age group, as it is only in these circumstances that the child is being admitted to school for the first time”.
- It makes clear: “Parents must be able to make a decision about whether their child is ready for 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.”
- The guidance recognises it will not always be easy for admission authorities to make a decision about a child more than a year before the point at which they may be admitted. But it is clear this is the decision they must make.
- In December 2018 the Ombudsman issued guidance to Councils on our approach to complaints on this issue. We consider the Council must have considered the potential impact on the child of starting in Year 1 without having completed reception year. The authority can decide it is in a child’s best interests to start with their normal school age in Year 1, missing reception – each case must be decided on its merits. To do so it would need to explain this decision with reference to any support available within the school.
- The Council’s policy explains that parents of summer born children can request that they be allowed to apply for their child’s admission to the Reception year group to be delayed until the start of the school year after the child’s fifth birthday. The parents should identify the schools for which they want to express preferences and produce evidence to show there is sufficient justification for the child’s admission to be delayed in this way.
- The Council has commented that in light of the guidance I refer to above it is issuing further guidance for parents which should be available at the end of the current academic year.
- The Council wrote to Mrs B in September 2018 inviting her to apply for a school place for Y for September 2018. She wrote to the Council explaining that she considered that he would be too young to start school having only just turned four. She asked the Council to agree to him starting in Reception in September 2020.
- The Council replied, not agreeing to the request but inviting Mrs B to put in more information. She did so. The information she supplied included medical information and a letter from the nursery Y attends. The Council consulted with the headteacher at the school where Mrs B wanted Y to attend. The head replied stating that the letter from the nursery showed some immaturity and that he would be the youngest in the year. This would mean there would be some extra challenges but the school was used to working with different levels of maturity and ability. He said the information did lend some weight to the argument that he would find starting school difficult but the difficulties would not necessarily be insurmountable. He ended by saying it was a difficult decision.
- The Council decided it would not agree to admission into Reception in September 2020. The decision letter referred to:
- The response from the headteacher which showed that in some areas Y was behind but he was not at level for referral to speech and language therapy;
- That although Y was behind in some areas this would not have a significant bearing on the year group in which he would be taught;
- That if Y was to enter Reception in September 2020 because he would have been in nursery for three years by then a further year in Reception could mean he would have spent a total of four years covering Foundation stage curriculum;
- It concluded that it would not be Y’s best interests to enter the Reception year in September 2020.
- My role is to consider how the Council has made its decision; I am not reconsidering the matter and coming to my own view. The Council’s response to my enquiries on the complaint has expanded on the reasoning given in its final decision letter to Mrs B. It said it did consider the medical information Mrs B provided but both the Council and the head of the school did not consider it was relevant to whether Y should be admitted to Reception or Year 1. It referred to the comments by the head that Y was cognitively and emotionally immature and this could create added challenges. But all schools were used to working with a range of abilities and maturity levels and that these issues were not unsurmountable. The school was rated as Good and had a strong track record in supporting all pupils to make strong gains from their starting point, the curriculum was well planned and as a result learning moved at pace and met the needs of all pupils. The Council accepted that these points were not referred to in the final decision letter as they should have been.
- The Council also said it had considered the fact that Y had been born two weeks prematurely. But the key point was Y’s current ability and development. The Council’s decision was based on what it considered to be in Y’s best interests when entering school in 2020.
- The Council’s decision letter should have explained in detail how it addressed these points as the guidance refers to them as being relevant factors in the decision making. But I do not consider the Council’s consideration was flawed. A key point for the Council has been that if Y started in the Reception class in September 2020 he would have been receiving the Reception curriculum for four years which it considers may stifle Y’s development rather than support his progress. Mrs B has clarified that Y only went into the pre-school room at nursery in September 2018 so if he starts school in September 2020 in Year 1 he will only have had two years at that level, not three. In response the Council has commented that there will be individual planning for Y when he starts school. This will be based on an assessment of his abilities and experience. It therefore considers that entry into Year 1 in September 2020 would be appropriate if Mrs B does not want him to start in September 2019 in Reception.
- There was fault in the Council’s decision letter which did not provide as full an explanation as it should but there was no fault in the way the Council made the decision that Y should start in year 1 in September 2020. In saying that there are other alternatives as he could attend Reception from September 2019 part-time or start in January or after Easter 2020 all of which are open to Mrs B.
- There was no fault in how the Council made the decision about the year group in which Y should start but the letter giving the final decision did not provide as full an explanation as it should.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman