The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr C complains that an admissions appeal panel unfairly refused his appeal against a school’s refusal to grant his son a place. The panel decided the appeal fairly.
- The complainant, Mr C, says an admissions appeal panel hearing his appeal for his son to attend a school in the Council’s area (‘the school’) did not consider the appeal fairly. He says it bore in mind irrelevant matters and incorrect information.
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 spoke to Mr C and considered the information he provided. I wrote to the Council and asked for further information. I weighed the evidence and made my decision.
- I sent copies of my draft decision to Mr C and the Council and invited comments.
What I found
- Every state school in England must publish a Published Admission Number for every year each year. The PAN number is the number of children the school should ideally have in each year and when the PAN is reached, the school is at capacity. If a child applies for a place and the PAN has not been reached for the relevant year, the school must offer the child a place.
- However, many schools are oversubscribed and so must find a way of allocating available places fairly. Schools must, therefore, have an oversubscription policy allowing them to decide who should be awarded available places.
- From Year 3 upward, even if the PAN would be exceeded, schools must still offer a place to an applicant unless they can show that to do so would result in prejudice to the education of the existing students.
The school’s oversubscription criteria
- Where demand exceeds the total number of places available, the school allocates places in the following priority:
- Children looked after by a local authority and previously looked after children.
- Children from the catchment area with a brother or sister at the school.
- Other children who live in the catchment area.
- Children from outside the catchment area with a brother or sister at the school.
- Other children from outside the catchment area.
- When a school refuses to offer a child a place, the parents can appeal against the decision to the independent school admissions appeal body.
- The appeal follows a two-stage procedure. It must first consider whether the admission of further children to the school would prejudice the provision of education to existing students and must uphold the appeal if it finds it would not.
- If it finds that it would, it must proceed to stage 2 and consider whether the appellant’s circumstances justify granting a place. It then allows or dismisses the appeal. This decision is made at the panel’s discretion. If
- In early 2018, Mr C applied for his child, X, to join the school in Year 3. Mr C said that, for family reasons, it would be helpful if X could join the school.
- X did not receive a place. The Council said this was because ‘there were more applications than places available and other children had higher priority within the admission oversubscription criteria.’
- Mr C appealed. At the appeal, the Council said the school’s PAN was 45 and the school would have 45 children in Year 3 in September 2018.
- It said X’s admission would prejudice the education of existing pupils because:
- Space was limited;
- There were already excessive student numbers and in Year 3; and
- The school would be losing a further teacher in 2019/20 which would put further pressure on the school’s resources.
- The Council presenting officer at the appeal had spent a great deal of time talking about the number of students in Year 2, which was irrelevant as his child had applied to Year 3; and
- The Council officer had said that the school would be losing a teacher which, he had learnt, was not true.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- Mr C has very good reason for wanting X to attend the school which go beyond the fact that it is rated outstanding. For family reasons, he says, it would be helpful for X to do so. I do not doubt that this is the case. However, schools admissions appeals have little room for considering such factors.
Conduct of the appeal
- The appeal was conducted in accordance with the guidance. Relevant matters were considered. The school is above PAN and the Council believes that to admit more pupils would prejudice the standard of education at the school. It therefore opposed X’s admission. The panel accepted this and did not find Mr C’s family circumstances were sufficient to justify allowing the appeal.
- Mr C disagrees with this. He believes that the Council’s duties under the Equalities Act mean that the appeal should have been allowed.
- This was a matter for the panel to consider. It did so fully. Mr C set out his arguments but the panel did not feel they justified allowing the appeal.
- In the circumstances, therefore, providing the information considered by the panel was correct, the Ombudsman cannot find fault with the decision.
- Mr C says the Council’s representative at the appeal referred to the pupil numbers in Year 2, not Year 3. However, notes taken by the clerk to the appeal show that the representative was referring to Year 2 from the 2017-18 academic year, which would become Year 3 in the 2018-19 academic year and there would impact on the provision in 2019/20 school year as the year group the appeal was for would be part of the mixed age classes. This was, therefore, a relevant consideration. I do not find fault.
- Mr C also says that, in the light of his conversation with the headteacher, he believes that the Council presented incorrect information about the loss of a teacher in 2019/20.
- I asked the Council to make enquiries about this. The Council sent me a letter from the headteacher which says she may have given Mr C a false impression as had not fully understood the admissions criteria. She apologised for any misunderstanding. The Council did, therefore, I find, consider all the relevant information. I do not find fault.
- Mr C says that the impact of his child not joining the school has been ‘massive’. This was not a matter for the panel which had to deal with the issue of prejudice to other students. The Ombudsman can only consider injustice where there is fault and, here, there was none.
- I have found that the Council was not at fault. The panel correctly considered all the appeal criteria and made a decision open to it on the facts. I have closed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman