The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains about the way the Council managed the process which considered his son’s school admissions appeal and says he was not allowed to present his case in full. He wants a new panel not previously connected with the appeal to reconsider it so he has the opportunity to present his case in full. The Ombudsman has found the Council was not at fault because the panel considered all the information that Mr X submitted in support of his case that was relevant to the appeal before deciding to reject it.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to as Mr X, complains about the way the Council managed the process which considered his son’s school admissions appeal and says he was not allowed to present his case in full.
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 discussed it with him.
- 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 son Y is 11 years old. He is scheduled to start secondary school in September 2019.
- In mid-April 2019, Mr X submitted an appeal to the Council after his son was not awarded a place at School Z. He submitted a letter in support of the appeal listing Y’s achievements and interest in maths, literacy, science, drama, art, and sport. He stated he felt Y would be a good addition to School Z, which he noted was rated ‘outstanding’ by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (OFSTED). He acknowledged the original application did not satisfy the distance criteria for admission but vowed the place would not be wasted, if awarded. Moreover, he said his family was ready to support the school voluntarily, if required, and highlighted work they had undertaken to support other schools.
- In mid-May 2019, the Council and School Z presented the education case to parents at stage one. Shortly after, Mr X attended the panel hearing at stage two to present his son’s case.
- Mr X states he spoke for approximately 15 minutes at the hearing but a member of the panel kept interrupting him, which he says was distracting and prevented him from making his case. He says the panel acknowledged it received his appeal submission and asked him why his son deserved a place at School Z. He says he wanted to explain all the different activities that his son was involved in, discuss fundraising for another place, and give details of the voluntarily work he had undertaken previously, but he says the panel prevented him from doing this.
- The notes made by the clerk who recorded the hearing detail the case put forward by Mr X in person. They state he felt School Z would provide Y with an opportunity to develop educationally and provide a springboard to higher education. They also detail Y’s interest in maths, drama and science, highlighting that Mr X said the School’s provision in these areas and sport was renowned and thus well suited to his son. Similarly, he said another school in the area could not match this level of provision. The notes also mention Mr X’s involvement in fundraising and state this factor was not relevant to the panel’s decision.
- 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 said Mr X’s main reason for the appeal was because he felt School Z would provide opportunities for Y to develop in “boxing, swimming, drama, mathematics and other areas”. It also noted Mr X had discussed the quality of provision delivered by the School and his belief this was an appropriate match for his son. However, it reasoned Y’s progress would not be hindered if he were to attend another school and concluded he would not be prejudiced if admission to School Z was not granted.
- In mid-June 2019, Mr X complained to the Ombudsman about this matter. He says the panel did not consider the information he submitted in support of the appeal, nor did it allow him to present his case fully during the hearing. He also says the wrong parties attended the hearing and the panel members accused him of bribery.
- I reviewed the information Mr X submitted in support of his appeal and discussed with him the reasons why he thinks it should be upheld. I compared the information he gave to the information contained in the clerk’s notes and the decision letter which the Council sent him at the end of May 2019. His case was based on his son’s achievements, interests, the suitability and high quality of the provision delivered by School Z, and the opportunity for his son to develop and attend university if he were admitted. The clerk notes and decision letter show the panel considered this information before it decided not to uphold the appeal, therefore I cannot find the Council was at fault.
- I understand Mr X is unhappy the panel interrupted him when he presented his case and feels embarrassed that it stopped him from discussing his fundraising and voluntary work. I appreciate why he feels this way, but the panel was responsible for determining whether his son’s case was stronger than the one presented by the School. It had the information that Mr X submitted before the hearing, therefore it interrupted him during his presentation to establish if there were any other reasons why his son should be admitted. It stopped him from discussing his fundraising and voluntary work because this was not relevant to its decision. If it had not have done this, Mr X would have spent some of the 15 minutes he was given discussing a matter that would not support his case. Therefore, the panel was right to stop him as this enabled him to maximise the time he was given. I understand its questioning made him feel uncomfortable, but this does not mean it did anything wrong.
- Regarding the other part of Mr X’s complaint concerning the panel members, I understand he feels two of them lacked the competence to decide the appeal. I have found no evidence they were unqualified and note they were selected in accordance with the School Admissions Appeals Code. Likewise, my finding that the appeal was properly considered indicates the panel members knew what they were doing.
- The Council was not at fault because the panel considered all the information that Mr X submitted in support of his case that was relevant to the appeal before deciding to reject it.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman