The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about a school admission appeal. He said the Panel did not properly consider his case. The Ombudsman found no evidence of fault.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr X, complained about an unsuccessful school admission appeal for his daughter (Child Y). Mr X said the Panel failed to properly consider his appeal.
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 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))
- 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
- During my investigation I have:
- spoken with Mr X to discuss his complaint;
- considered the paperwork provided by the School and the Clerk to the Appeal Panel, this included the decision sheets for all appellant children;
- considered relevant legislation and guidance including the School Admissions Code and the School Admission Appeals Code;
- given Mr X and the School the opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision.
What I found
School admissions / appeals
- Under the system of coordinated admissions, parents make a single application for a school place to their home local authority. This is the local authority the parent pays their council tax to.
- All schools must have a set of admission arrangements. The school’s admission authority uses these to decide which children will receive an offer of a place if there are more applications than places available. The school’s admission authority sets the admission arrangements. In a voluntary aided school, the Governing Body is the admission authority.
- Once local authorities have received all applications for school places, they exchange data with one another. Parents then receive a single offer of a school place from their home authority.
- Any parent who has their application for a school place refused has the right to appeal the decision via an independent appeal panel (‘the Panel’). A clerk supports the Panel (‘the Clerk’).
- The Department for Education has published the School Admission Appeals Code (‘the Appeals Code’) to provide statutory guidance on school admission appeals.
- Parents can send information in support of their appeal and the Clerk circulates it before the hearing, along with information from the admission authority. Parents can attend the hearing to present their case. A representative from the admission authority will normally attend the hearing.
- Parents and the Panel can ask the admission authority’s representative questions. The Panel will normally ask the parents questions.
- The Appeals Code sets out a two-stage process for considering appeals. In the first stage, the Panel examines the decision to refuse admission, and considers whether the admission authority took the decision properly. It also has to decide whether admitting extra children would “prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources” for those already at the school. If the Panel decides that admitting extra children would prejudice the school, then it must continue to the second stage of the appeal. In this stage, the Panel must balance the prejudice to the school against the appellant’s case. It must decide whether the appellant’s case outweighs the prejudice to the school.
- Panels will only decide whether to allow an appeal after they have heard all appeals for a particular school. Following an appeal, the Clerk writes to the parents with the Panel’s decision.
The School’s Admission Policy
- This gives priority to baptised Catholics. It says where there are more applications than the number of places oversubscription criteria will be applied. Children of other non-Christian faiths are ranked number 11 (1 being the category with highest priority, 12 being the lowest).
- Mr X’s daughter, Child Y, was due to start secondary school in September 2019.
- In October 2018, Mr X submitted an online application to the local authority naming St Paul’s Catholic College (“the School”) as Child Y’s preferred choice.
- In March 2019, Mr X was told Child Y had not been awarded a place at the School because it was heavily oversubscribed. There were 860 applications for 180 places.
- Instead, Child Y was offered a place at School D, her third preferred choice.
- Mr X requested an appeal of this decision for the following reasons:
- The family are practicing Muslims, which has “multiple religious, moral and cultural overlap” with the Catholic faith.
- Child Y’s school place would impact on her two younger siblings.
- The School was closer to home.
- Child Y had various medical conditions. Mr X said she would benefit from attending a school as close to home as possible with a safe environment.
- School drop off would be more difficult with School D being further away and two other children to take to school as well.
- The family were responsible for care of Child Y’s elderly grandmother who had a number of health issues. This would be more difficult if Child Y had to be driven to a school that was further away from home.
- School D could adequately meet Y’s medical needs and had the same intake as the School.
- It was not unusual for families to have to manage children at different schools and needs of other family members.
- It was reasonable for a secondary school child to walk to school independently.
- Legislation did not create a right to be educated at a particular school or in a particular faith setting.
Mr X’s complaint to the Ombudsman
- Mr X complained that the appeal hearing and decision did not comply with the Code for the following reasons:
- He was prevented from presenting his argument about comparative prejudice to the school against admitting his daughter.
- The Panel failed to properly consider Y’s mental health in the context of relative prejudice.
- The Panel decided that Y could travel to school independently without taking into account her particular circumstances
- The Panel placed undue weight on being in the Catholic faith. He said the Appeal Code does not import the School’s admission criteria.
- In reaching my decision I have looked carefully at the documents provided, particularly the clerk’s notes of the hearing and decision making, and the decision letter sent to Mr X. I have also considered the decision notes and score sheets for all appellants.
Mr X was prevented from presenting his argument about comparative prejudice to the school against admitting his daughter.
- The Clerk’s notes, while not entirely verbatim, record some discussion between Mr X and the Panel about respective prejudice and his argument that the Panel were able to admit more than 25 children. The Clerk recorded the Chair of the Panel as saying, “not revisiting this”. Mr X attempted to further explain his point. Instead the Chair then invited comments about Child Y’s circumstances.
- This does suggest Mr X was prevented from making the points he wanted to make. But the decision letter says otherwise. The letter said, “You argued that Child Y would not cause prejudice to the School; the school is adding an additional class and performs to an extremely high standard despite the challenges faced by the school.” This suggests to me that the Panel was aware of the point Mr X was trying to put across.
- On balance, I am satisfied, Mr X was allowed enough opportunity to present his case for there not to be fault.
The Panel failed to properly consider Child Y’s mental health in the context of relative prejudice
- Mr X says the Panel was not sufficiently age diverse to have proper understanding of mental health in children. I have found no evidence to support this view. I did not consider it necessary to make enquiries of the age composition of the Panel. There is no requirement in the Appeals Code for age diversity, just that they be suitably trained.
- But Mr X says he referred to Child Y’s panic attacks and anxiety and these were not properly considered because of the Panel’s lack of general understanding. The evidence does not support this view. Child Y’s individual circumstances are documented in the Clerk’s notes and referred to in the decision letter. The doctor’s letter is referred to also. The Panel decided School D’s induction procedures and pastoral provision were sufficient to address Mr X’s concerns about his daughter’s welfare.
- Because I can see the Panel considered the evidence presented by Mr X, I do not agree that the Panel did not properly consider Child Y’s mental health. The Ombudsman is unable to interfere with the decision as long as it was properly made.
The Panel decided that Child Y could travel to school independently without taking into account her particular circumstances
- During the appeal hearing the Clerk’s notes show there was a discussion about Child Y being able to walk to school. The Chair said School D was not too far to walk to. Child Y’s mother said it was between 20 -25 minutes, but she would not be able to walk by herself because, “of the way she is…and there were a lot of busy roads to cross”.
- The decision letter set out the Panel’s conclusion that, “it took the view that it is reasonable to expect a child of secondary school age to travel to and from school independently”.
- Mr X’s argument that this general stance did not apply to his daughter because of her particular vulnerability, as explained by his wife at the appeal hearing “because of the way she is”.
- It is not my role to determine whether or not the Panel was correct to decide if it was reasonable to say it was reasonable for Child Y to walk to school. Instead, I must decide whether it properly considered the issue. I am satisfied it did. The decision letter show the Panel was aware of Child Y’s medical history and asked a number of questions about how it affected her everyday life.
- While it may have been helpful for the decision letter to have included some additional commentary about why the Panel decided it was reasonable for Child Y to walk to school, as I am satisfied the Panel was fully aware of Child Y’s medical circumstances when reaching its decision so I do not consider this to be fault.
The Panel placed undue weight on being in the Catholic faith. The Code does not import the School’s admission criteria.
- In order for me to form a view on this aspect of Mr X’s complaint. I asked the Clerk to explain the basis on which the 25 successful children were identified at Stage One. All appellants were given two scores. One related to admission criteria and the other related to their individual circumstances and prejudice. The latter score was doubled to ensure admission criteria alone was not given too much emphasis.
- This was something the Panel was entitled to do. It also demonstrates that admission criteria was not given disproportionate priority as claimed by Mr X.
- I have also looked at the scores for the all applicants, including Child Y. I am satisfied the scoring was fair and did not given undue weight to admission criteria.
- There was no fault in the way the 25 children were selected at Stage One. In terms of considering prejudice, there is no evidence to support Mr X’s view that when making the decision at Stage Two that being a non-Catholic child had a bearing on the decision.
Mr X’s appeal for a school place was not affected by fault. I have closed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman