The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains about the way the Council managed the process which considered his twin daughters’ school admissions appeal. He says the independent panel which heard the case did not properly consider the information he submitted in support of it. The Ombudsman has found the Council was at fault for not considering Mr X’s appeal in full or documenting the reasons behind the panel’s decision. It is possible the panel could have reached a different decision if the case was properly considered. Therefore, we have recommended that Mr X’s appeal be heard again by a new panel not previously connected with the case. We have also made a service improvement recommendation to prevent the faults we have identified from reoccurring. The Council has accepted our recommendations.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to as Mr X, complains about the way the Council managed the process which considered his twin daughters’ school admissions appeal. He says the independent panel which heard the case did not properly consider the information he submitted in support of it.
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 an independent school admissions appeals panel’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider if there was fault in the way the decision was reached. If we find fault, which calls into question the panel’s decision, we may ask for a new appeal hearing. (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:
- Read Mr X’s complaint and considered the information he submitted in support of it.
- Considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided.
- Provided both parties with an opportunity to comment on the draft decision.
What I found
- The Department for Education issued the School Admissions Appeals Code in 2012. This guidance outlines the process which councils must follow when a parent appeals against a decision not to award their child a place at their preferred school. In cases involving admissions to comprehensive schools, councils must follow a two-stage process.
- At the first stage, an appeal panel must consider whether the admission arrangements complied with the law and were “correctly and impartially applied in the case”. It must then decide whether “the admission of additional children would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources”. If it finds the admission arrangements did not comply with the law, were not applied properly, or there is no prejudice, it must uphold the appeal. In all other cases, the appeal proceeds to stage two.
- At stage two, the School Admissions Appeals Code states:
“The panel must balance the prejudice to the school against the appellant’s case for the child to be admitted to the school. It must take into account the appellant’s reasons for expressing a preference for the school, including what that school can offer the child that the allocated or other schools cannot. If the panel considers that the appellant’s case outweighs the prejudice to the school it must uphold the appeal.”
- The London Borough of Enfield Council conducts stage one and two on separate days. At stage one, the Council and the school concerned present the case against admitting an extra child to multiple appellants. Then, each appellant returns at a later date at stage two to present their individual case to the panel in a private hearing.
- Mr X’s daughters are 11 years old. They are scheduled to start secondary school in September 2019.
- At the beginning of March 2019, Mr X submitted an appeal to the Council after his daughters were not awarded a place at School Y. He submitted a letter in support of the appeal, stating they had been in the “catchment area” the previous year but were now ineligible. He suspected they had been penalised by other parents renting properties in the area to try and secure a place and noted his daughters had previously lived at another address closer to the School. He said they had always intended to attend the School and mentioned its good reputation. He added the decision not to offer a place had left his daughters devastated and they had suffered from anxiety attacks because of it.
- At the end of the month, Mr X sent a letter to the Council providing further information in support of the appeal. This included two medical notes which detailed recent visits that Mr X’s daughters had made to their GP. They noted one had fainted whilst at school and the other was suffering from low mood. Both were referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
- At the end of April 2019, an organisation commissioned by the Council noted Mr X’s daughters had been referred for counselling and were currently on its waiting list.
- In mid-May 2019, the Council and School Y presented the education case to parents at stage one.
- A few days later, Mr X attended the panel hearing at stage two to present his daughters’ case. The notes made by the clerk who recorded the hearing detail the case put forward by Mr X . He said they had grown up next to School Y and it offered great facilities, particularly in sports which both daughters excelled in. He highlighted they were doing very well in primary school, but one had recently had a seizure whilst there and the personalities of both had changed since the decision not to admit to School Y was made. He added they needed to attend this School so they could be with their friends.
- The clerk’s notes also listed several factors which should not be considered by the panel when making its decision. One of these factors included the adverse impact of the rejection by School Y.
- At the end of the month, the Council wrote to Mr X to notify him the panel had decided unanimously to reject the appeal. It discussed the reasons behind the conclusions it had reached at stage one and two. Regarding the latter, it acknowledged the content of the letter that Mr X had submitted when he made the appeal. In response, it said:
“The Panel noted this but reasoned that issues of transportation can be alleviated as your children become more confident of travelling independently. The Panel noted that once your children were to familiarize themselves with the area the issue of transportation could be alleviated. The Panel noted the anxiety issues as a result of the admission decisions and the Panel fully recognizes that such decisions can have such an impact. In terms of progression, the Panel noted that your children have diverse academic and sports interests and they would be supported if they were to go to Highlands however at the same time the Panel reasoned that your children's progression would not be hampered if they were to go to any other school in the area as the support system in most, if not all schools in the borough is strong both for academic and other interests.”
- Consequently, it said the panel had decided the prejudice to the School was greater than the prejudice to Mr X’s daughters. Similarly, it said there were no significant grounds to warrant making an exception in the case.
- At the beginning of June 2019, Mr X complained to the Ombudsman about this matter. In addition to the points already raised, he states he was not initially notified when the panel hearing would take place and only discovered the appeal process was conducted over two days when he spoke to a fellow parent. Likewise, he says the Council contacted him on the day of the hearing stating he had failed to appear, even though he had been waiting at the location for around an hour and had notified it of his arrival.
- He says the Council’s original decision not to admit has caused his daughters distress and they have since suffered from anxiety attacks. He wants a new panel not previously connected with the case to reconsider the appeal and consider all the information he has submitted in support of it.
- I am content the panel properly considered the appeal at stage one of the process. However, at stage two I note the clerk stated the adverse impact of the rejection by School Y should not be considered by the panel. The School Admissions Appeals Code does not say this information should not be considered, rather it merely states that panels must consider “the appellant’s reasons for expressing a preference for the school”. So, there is no reason why this information should not have been considered.
- I also note the reasoning for the rejection given in the notification letter is not detailed anywhere in the clerk’s notes. Therefore, it is not entirely clear what the reasoning behind the panel’s decision was as this has not been properly documented in a contemporaneous record.
- Consequently, I have found the Council was at fault for not considering Mr X’s appeal in full or documenting the reasons behind the panel’s decision. It is possible the panel could have reached a different decision if the case was properly considered. Therefore, I have recommended that Mr X’s appeal be heard again by a new panel not previously connected with the case. This will allow him to present his case in full and enable the Council to address any misunderstanding that occurred when the arrangements for the first hearing were being made. I have also made a service improvement recommendation to prevent the faults I have identified from reoccurring.
- The Council has agreed to write to Mr X to schedule a new appeal hearing. It will invite him to submit written evidence in support of the appeal and ensure the clerk and panel members that are appointed have no prior connection to the case.
- The Council has also agreed to send a copy of the Ombudsman’s final decision statement to all appeal clerks. In a covering email, it will stress the importance of considering an appellant’s case in full and the need to document the reasons behind a panel’s decision to uphold or reject an appeal.
- The Council will carry out these actions within two weeks of the date of this final decision.
- The Council was at fault for not considering Mr X’s appeal in full or documenting the reasons behind the panel’s decision.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman