The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There is some fault with the Council’s actions following the school admission appeal hearing for Mr A and Ms B’s son. The Council has agreed to apologise for the injustice caused.
- Mr A and Ms B have complained about the Council’s actions following their son’s school admission appeal. They say the Council did not carry out the address checks requested by the appeal panel and took too long to explain its reasons for not verifying the addresses.
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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered all the information from Mr A and Ms B and the Council, including its response to my enquires.
- A copy of this decision was sent in draft to Mr A and Ms B and the Council. I have considered the comments received in response.
What I found
- Mr A and Ms B applied for a reception class place for their son, C. The Council, as admission authority for the school, refused the application. It said it received 100 applications for the 30 available places and all were filled by pupils with a higher priority under the school’s admission arrangements.
- The admission arrangements detail the priority that children are offered places. As the school was oversubscribed applications were ranked and places offered in order of the following priorities:
- looked after and previously looked after children;
- children with a sibling link to the school;
- nearest school by straight line;
- the church criterion;
- the straight line distance to the school.
- Mr A and Ms B were unhappy with the Council’s decision and requested a school admission appeal hearing. The Council offered 15 children places at the school because it was the school closest to their home. However, Mr A and Ms B suspect that some of the successful applicants gave false addresses. The school is not C’s nearest school. But, Mr A and Ms B believe he would have been offered a place based on the distance between their home and the school if the other parents had given their real addresses. They asked the Council to provide postcodes for the pupils admitted to the school so they could verify the addresses.
- This matter was discussed during the admission appeal hearing. The Council said it could not give Mr A and Ms B the addresses for other pupils as this would breach data protection laws. However, the panel suggested that the Council could check the addresses to ensure these were correct. Mr A and Ms B agreed this would give them peace of mind.
- Shortly after the hearing, the appeal clerk wrote to Mr A and Ms B to tell them their appeal had been unsuccessful. The letter explained the reasons for the panel’s decision and the information it considered. However, the clerk’s letter made no reference to the discussion about address checks. Therefore, Mr A and Ms B wrote to the Council and asked it to clarify this issue.
- The Council wrote to Mr A and Ms B and said it had decided not to carry out any address checks. It said it felt this would be too intrusive and did not believe there was any reason to suggest any of the applications contained misleading information. The Council said that if Mr A and Ms B had doubts about a specific application it would investigate further. Mr A and Ms B are unhappy with this response and have complained about how long it took the Council to tell them it would not check the addresses given on the application forms.
- I am satisfied the Council has explained why it decided not to complete any address checks following the panel hearing. This was a decision it was entitled to make and there is no requirement in the School Admission Code or the Council’s policy which says address checks should be completed. However, it is clear from the clerk’s notes that the Council did say it would investigate the matter further and check the relevant addresses. Although the Council was entitled to change its position in this regard, it should have told Mr A and Ms B sooner. They were not aware that the addresses would not be verified until some time after the panel hearing when they chased the Council for a response. While, this did not affect the outcome of the admission appeal, it would likely have been frustrating for Mr A and Ms B, particularly as they had to chase the Council on more than one occasion.
- Mr A and Ms B have also complained about the content of the clerk’s letter. They say the letter was generic, did not include the date of the appeal and seemed to be copied from a template. The School Admission Appeals Code says the clerk must confirm the panel’s decision in writing and explain the reasons for the decision. I am satisfied the clerk’s letter did properly explain the panel’s decision in relation to the relevant law and the circumstances raised by Mr A and Ms B. Therefore, I cannot say there is any fault or that the letter should have included further details.
- Mr A and Ms B have also raised concerns as the Council officer approached them shortly before the meeting started. They say this was unethical and not proper process. The Council says it is normal practice for the school admissions manager to introduce herself before the hearing as this can help put parents at ease in what can be an intimidating situation. I cannot say this is unreasonable and I have not seen any evidence to suggest the discussion was inappropriate or unprofessional.
- The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr A and Ms B for the delay in telling them it would not be carrying out the address checks agreed during the school admission appeal hearing.
- There is some fault with the Council’s actions following the school admission appeal hearing.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman