The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there is no fault in the Independent Appeal Panel’s decision not to admit Mr P’s daughter, G, to the school. The Ombudsman cannot question decisions taken without fault.
- Mr P complains following his unsuccessful appeal for a place for his daughter, G, at Menorah High School for Girls. In particular, Mr P complains:
- there was no independent oversight of the ballot to allocate places;
- a fresh ballot was not held to allocate a place when a child gave up her place; and
- parents were not told the names of members of the Independent Appeal Panel in advance. Mr P complains one Panel member had links to the school.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the way the Independent Appeal Panel considered Mr P’s appeal against the school’s decision to refuse his daughter a place. I have not investigated the actions of the Governors when allocating places.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question a school admission appeal panel’s decision simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider if there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
- We check the Independent Appeal Panel followed the Code of Practice issued by the Department for Education and the hearing was fair. We do this by examining the notes taken by the Clerk during the hearing. We do not have the power to overturn the Panel’s decision, and we cannot give a child a place at the school. If we find fault, which calls the panel’s decision into question, we may ask for a new appeal hearing.
- If we are satisfied with a panel’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:
- information provided by Mr P;
- information presented to the Appeal Panel, the notes taken by the Clerk during the appeal, and the Panel’s decision letter following the appeal; and
- the School Admissions Appeals Code 2012.
What I found
- Mr P applied for a place for his daughter, G, at Menorah High School for Girls.
- The school is a voluntary aided school. The Governors are the admission authority and are responsible for admissions and appeals.
- Mr P’s application and subsequent appeal were unsuccessful. Mr P complained to the Ombudsman.
- The Ombudsman checks the appeal was carried out properly. We do not decide whether Mr P’s daughter should be given a place at the school.
- The School Admission Appeals Code 2012 issued by the Department for Education sets out the process the Independent Appeal Panel must follow when considering an appeal.
- The Panel must first consider whether the School has correctly applied the admission criteria to the application. The school allocates places according to published oversubscription criteria and uses a random ballot to allocate places when there are more applicants than places available. Mr P’s application was unsuccessful because there were more applications than places at the school and his daughter was unsuccessful in the ballot.
- A number of parents raised concerns about the way the Governors ran the ballot and allocated an additional place when a girl gave up her place. The Governors accepted they had made mistakes, which caused parents to question the fairness of the process, and apologised. The Panel heard from both parents and representatives of the school and concluded that despite the irregularities, no applicants had been disadvantaged. This is a decision the Panel is entitled to make and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question it.
- Since the appeal, parents have offered additional evidence which they believe casts further doubt on the fairness of the ballot. This is a separate matter which they may wish to take up with the Governors. As far as the complaint about the appeal is concerned, the Appeal Panel heard from both sides, considered the evidence and made a decision on the evidence available. There was no fault in the process. The Ombudsman cannot question decisions made without fault.
- The Panel must then consider whether the school can accept any more pupils without disadvantaging those already given places. Both the Panel and the parents had an opportunity to question the school’s representative. I can see from the notes there was considerable discussion about the capacity of the school. The Panel accepted that the school was full and could not take extra pupils. This is a decision that the Panel is entitled to take, and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question it.
- The Panel must then consider Mr P’s case for his daughter to be admitted to the school even though the school is full. This is known as the balancing stage where the prejudice to Mr P’s daughter if she is not given a place is balanced against the prejudice to the school if she is. The Clerk’s notes record Mr P’s case and his discussions with the Panel at the hearing. The Panel considered Mr P’s case but decided that the prejudice to his daughter did not outweigh the prejudice to the school. This is a decision that the Panel is entitled to take and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question it.
- Mr P complains parents were not told the names of the Panel members until the day of the hearing. The Appeals Code says parents must be told the names of the panel members ‘a reasonable time’ before the hearing to allow them to raise any objections about their impartiality.
- The Clerk’s notes record the fact that membership of the Panel changed at short notice due to unforeseen circumstances. There were no objections at the time. Mr P has since sent me information which he believes calls the impartiality of one panel member into question. I do not consider that it does. It concerns a small donation made by the chair of governors to a charitable fundraising undertaking by one of the Panel members some time after the appeal, and joint membership by a member of the Panel and one of the Governors of a group that lobbies the Government on matters of concern to faith schools. I do not consider either to be evidence of a conflict of interest.
- The school has only recently become a voluntary aided school. It used to be an independent school. This is the first time the Governors have had to arrange admission appeals. The process has not run as smoothly as might be expected of a school more used to handling appeals. I do not intend to comment on these matters, however, as the Governors have shown a willingness to learn lessons from this year’s experience, and any fault has not caused the appellants significant injustice to justify further investigation.
- There is no fault in the appeal that calls the outcome into question. The Ombudsman cannot question decisions taken without fault. I have ended my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman