East Sussex County Council (19 006 420)

Category : Education > School admissions

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 27 Aug 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: A parent complained that the Council had unreasonably refused to review the information it asks for in school application forms regarding the child in question’s parents. But the Ombudsman does not have reason to investigate this matter because there is no sign of fault by the Council.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall call Mr B, complained that the Council had unreasonably refused to review the information about the child’s parents it asks applicants for school places to provide on its Common Application Form (CAF). Mr B complained the current CAF was deficient and discriminatory because it only required the parent applying for a place to enter their own details. Mr B said this created a risk that a second parent with parental responsibility, but who was estranged from the applying parent, would be unfairly excluded from involvement in the school application and transition process for their child, which was what had happened in his own case.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start an investigation if, for example, we believe:
  • it is unlikely we would find fault, or
  • the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information Mr B provided with his complaint. I also gave Mr B an opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision before I reached a final view in his case. In addition I took account of the Council’s response to my enquiries about Mr B’s complaint.

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What I found

  1. Mr B’s daughter will transfer from primary school to secondary school in September. Mr B is divorced and lives separately to his ex-wife and daughter. But he still shares parental responsibility for his daughter with his ex-wife.
  2. Mr B’s ex-wife made the application for a school place for his daughter. Mr B was not aware of this matter so he was not involved in the application process or the transition arrangements for his daughter’s new school.
  3. Mr B then complained to the Council as he felt the design of its CAF had led to the problem he experienced. In particular Mr B said the CAF did not ask for, or allow space to provide, details of a second parent with parental responsibility. He also said the CAF did not make it clear to the applicant that a second parent would not receive information about the application if their details were not provided.
  4. In the circumstances Mr B felt the Council’s current practices did not provide equality of opportunity between estranged partners and this was more likely to affect men than women. As a result he asked the Council to review its CAF.
  5. But the Council did not accept Mr B’s criticisms of its CAF, and it declined to carry out a review.
  6. In particular the Council said parents who were estranged were both entitled to make an application for a school place. The Council also said it would share any application information with a second parent who contacted it separately, as long as they confirmed they also had parental responsibility. In addition the Council said taking the measures Mr B suggested would not guarantee a second parent would be informed about an application as the applicant parent would not be obliged to provide the other parent’s details on the CAF if they did not want to.
  7. Mr B was not satisfied with the Council’s response, so he brought his complaint to the Ombudsman.

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  1. But I have concluded we do not have reason to investigate matters in Mr B’s case as there is no sign of fault by the Council.
  2. Mr B clearly disagrees with the Council’s conclusions about its CAF. He may also have made perfectly valid suggestions for changes to the CAF. But I am not convinced we could reasonably find fault with the Council for not necessarily accepting his views instead.
  3. In particular, I understand that admission authorities have some discretion about what information they ask for regarding second parents in school application forms, and I note that practices in this respect vary between different authorities.
  4. I also note that the statutory School Admissions Code does not have any specific provisions concerning this matter, aside from saying that authorities must not ask that both parents sign an application form.
  5. From the information provided it also seems to me the Council gave appropriate consideration to Mr B’s complaint and provided a reasoned response to the issues he raised, even though he is unhappy with that response.
  6. In particular I suggest the Council made a valid point that its processes do not necessarily disadvantage or discriminate against a second parent in Mr B’s situation because it is open to that parent to make their own application or approach the Council separately for information about the other parent’s application. The Council also seems to have made a good point that amending the CAF as Mr B suggests would not necessarily result in the applicant supplying details of a second parent, or allow it to make direct contact with that parent.
  7. The Ombudsman does not act as a general appeal body regarding councils’ decisions, and we can only intervene if there is fault in the decision-making process which may call that decision into question. But in Mr B’s case I do not see that we have reason to intervene regarding the Council’s discretionary decisions about the content of its CAF or whether it should carry out a review concerning this matter.
  8. Further, we normally only pursue complaints about fault by councils if there is sign that fault has caused the person complaining a significant injustice.
  9. But even if we were to find fault with the Council as Mr B suggests, I am not convinced we could say he had suffered a significant personal injustice as a result to warrant us starting an investigation.
  10. In particular, even if we could say that deficiencies in the CAF made it less likely Mr B would be made aware of his ex-wife’s application, it appears he would still have known his daughter was transferring to secondary school at the time and therefore could have contacted the Council directly for more information about the application process in her case.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman does not have reason to investigate Mr B’s complaint that the Council had unreasonably refused to review the content of its school application forms regarding the information it asked for about the child in question’s parents. This is because there is no sign of fault by the Council regarding this matter.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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