The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complainant says the school admissions authority failed to properly consider her appeal against its decision to refuse a place at a local school. The admissions authority says it followed the correct procedure and considered the grounds for appeal put forward. However it decided they did not outweigh the prejudice to the education of other pupils admitting a further pupil would cause. The Ombudsman finds the admission’s authority acted without fault.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss X says the Independent School Admissions Appeals Panel did not properly consider her appeal against the School’s refusal for a place for her daughter whom I shall call Y. The decision not to offer Y a place at the School of Miss X’s choice she says has had a severe adverse impact on her daughter. It also means Miss X struggles getting her three children to three separate schools.
- Miss wishes the Admissions Authority to reconsider and offer a place at the School.
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 must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If 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)
- Independent school admission appeals panels must follow the law when considering an appeal. The panel must consider whether:
- the admission arrangements comply with the law;
- the admission arrangements were properly applied to the case.
- The panel must then consider whether admitting another child would prejudice the education of others.
- If the panel finds there would be prejudice the panel must then consider each appellant’s individual arguments. If the panel decides the appellant’s case outweighs the prejudice to the school, it must uphold the appeal.
- The Ombudsman does not question the merits of decisions properly taken. The panel is entitled to come to its own judgment about the evidence it hears. 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)
How I considered this complaint
- In considering this complaint I have:
- Contacted Miss X and read the information presented with her complaint;
- Put enquiries to the Admissions Authority (the School) and reviewed its response;
- Researched the relevant law, guidance and policy;
- Shared with the Miss X and the School my draft decision and invited comments on it before reaching a final decision.
What I found
- Miss X applied for a place for Y to attend the School at which she also works and another of her children already attends. In March 2019 the School wrote to her to say it had refused Y’s application. The letter gave Miss X details of how to appeal the decision and confirmed it would place Y on the waiting list in case a place became available.
- The School offers 220 places to applicants whose parent/carer is a member of an Anglican or Roman Catholic Church as shown in the Supplementary Information Form (which confirms regular attendance). Where oversubscribed the School has ten priority criteria it applies to applications.
- The School also offers 40 places to applicants whose parent/carer is a member of a Free Christian Church and where these are oversubscribed it applies ten priority criteria.
- These two categories are referred to as Foundation Places.
- Where an applicant fails to secure a place under the Foundation Places category, they will be considered under the third admission category called ‘Open Places’.
- The School offers 12 Open Places.
- Miss X’s application falls within the ‘Open Category’ for admissions to the School. This is because she does not regularly attend a place of worship and therefore could not be considered under the Foundation Places category. Where there are more applicants than places available the School will give priority to applications in line with the order of priority set out in the School’s Admissions Policy. Under that order of priority Open Places will be offered to:
- Looked After Children or previously looked after children (in the care of the local authority);
- Children with an exceptional and professionally supported medical or social need for a place at the School;
- Children whose parent/carer regularly worships within a non-Christian faith community with a sibling attending the School at the time of admission;
- Children whose parent/carer regularly worships within a non-Christian faith community;
- Children with a sibling attending the School at the time of admission;
- Any other applicant.
- The School considered Y’s application for a place under the Open Places criteria category 5, because the local Anglican Church had confirmed Miss X did not regularly attend church. Therefore, she did not meet the Foundation Place criteria.
- In its decision letter the School says that it received 522 applications for the twelve places under the Open Places category. Having applied the strict order of priority the Council did not award any places under category 5.
- Miss X appealed against the decision to refuse Y a place. The Appeal Panel held appeal hearings for the appeals at the School on 4 and 5 June 2019. The School’s headteacher represented the Governors at the hearing and addressed the Panel setting out why the Governors could not offer more places.
- The headteacher took questions from parents present at the appeal and from members of the Panel. These included questions about any health and safety concerns from increasing numbers. The School said increased numbers impacted on class size and on movement around the school. Following the presentation, the Panel then considered in private whether the School had made its case. The Panel decided the School had shown that further admissions may prejudice the efficient education and resources of the School. Members had noted the impact of the numbers attending the School on movement around the School.
- In her appeal Miss X explained that she works at the School, has another child at the School as well as a child at a different school. Miss X says she lives close by and therefore the journey to the School would be easy and safer for Y.
- At the Panel hearing for Y’s appeal the Panel heard from the School and Miss X. During the hearing Miss X told the Panel she lived close to the School, already had a child at the school and another child may join the following year. Miss X said she had refused the offer of another school. Miss X said she would not allow Y to travel by bus to school. In response to a question from the Panel Miss X said she did not allow Y out alone.
- The Panel’s minutes show the Panel considered the School had correctly applied the admissions criteria to the application. The School had no priority for children of staff. At the balancing stage the Panel considered Miss X had not put forward any overriding reason for Y to attend the School which outweighed the prejudice to the education of others. By a unanimous vote the Panel decided to refuse the appeal.
- In the decision letter following the appeal the Panel sets out the grounds put forward by Miss X for allowing the appeal. However, having considered the appeal the letter explains the grounds put forward did not outweigh the prejudice to the education for others.
- In response to my enquiries the School says Miss X is not a regular worshipper at the Anglican Church or other faith and it gives no priority to applicants from members of its staff. Therefore, it could only consider Miss X’s application under the Open Place category. While Y has a sibling at the School this is low down in the priority categories (5). With 522 applicants for 12 places the School had awarded all available places before reaching the sibling category.
- Miss X believes the Panel did not properly consider her views and the likely impact refusing a place at the School would have on Y and the wider family. Miss X says she will struggle to get all three children to School, manage work and that Y has become depressed since she lost her appeal.
Analysis -has there been fault leading to injustice?
- My role is to consider how the School’s Appeal Panel followed the procedure for considering appeals. It is not to decide if Y should be offered a place at the School.
- It is important appeal panels consider if the School has shown increasing numbers above its published admission number will prejudice the education offered to pupils at the school. The minutes of the first part of the appeal show the Panel asked questions about how the School applied its admissions criteria. For example, members asked how the School measures distance when considering the distance criteria. The Panel asked if the School considered friendship groups, childcare issues, difficulties for parents in getting to work or family health when applying the admissions criteria. The Panel asked about siblings and the School said it did its best to keep families together but that is not always possible. It is clear the Panel members put questions to the School to help members decide if it had proved admitting further pupils would prejudice the education of others.
- The minutes for Y’s appeal show the Panel again considered whether the School had correctly applied the admission’s policy to Y’s application and decided it had. It then considered the grounds Miss X put forward for granting the appeal. The Panel decided Miss X had not shown exceptional grounds that outweighed the prejudice to the education of other pupils admitting a further pupil would cause.
- It is clear the Panel had before it Miss X’s views, the benefit of her oral presentation as well as her appeal form. Members asked questions to help them decide the appeal. The Panel had the School’s evidence as well. Having decided the School had proved prejudice if it admitted more pupils, the Panel had to decide if Miss X’s evidence outweighed the prejudice. If it did then the Panel must allow her appeal. However, the Panel decided Miss X had not provided a strong enough case to outweigh the prejudice. I do not doubt what Miss X says about the adverse impact on Y and the family the decision caused. However, that impact is not the result of fault on the Panel’s part. I find the Panel followed the correct procedure and had before it all relevant information including Miss X’s views and so decided the appeal without fault.
- In completing my investigation, I find the School acted without fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman