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Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (19 010 817)

Category : Education > School admissions

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 19 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complains about the way the Council dealt with her appeal about a school place for her son. Miss X says this meant the appeal was not fair. She says this has caused stress, and her son struggles to attend his current school. The Ombudsman does not find the Council at fault.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I refer to here as Miss X, complains about the way the Council dealt with her appeal about a school place for her son, C. She complains that:
      1. part of the Council’s appeal case was missing from the papers she received before the appeal;
      2. the Council introduced new information at the hearing which she did not know about; and,
      3. the panel did not consider some of the evidence she provided.
  2. Miss X says this meant the appeal was not fair, and she would have brought additional evidence if she had known certain issues would be raised. She says this has caused stress, and her son struggles to attend his current school.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information and documents provided by Miss X and the Council. I spoke to Miss X about her complaint. Miss X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on an earlier draft of this statement. I considered all comments before I reached a final decision.
  2. I have considered the relevant legislation and statutory guidance, set out below.

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What I found

What should have happened

General requirements for admission appeal hearings

  1. Admissions appeals are governed by the School Admissions Appeals Code 2012 (‘the Code’). The Code sets out how appeals should be administered and what information must be circulated beforehand.
  2. The Code says that an admission authority must supply the clerk with all relevant documents for the hearing, including “an explanation as to how admission of an additional child would cause prejudice to the provision of efficient education or efficient use of resources”.

Conduct of an appeal

  1. Appeals are heard in two stages. The panel is first asked to consider whether the admission arrangements complied with certain mandatory requirements, and also whether they were correctly and impartially applied in the complainant’s case.
  2. The panel then has to decide whether the admission of additional children would “prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources”. Panel members have to satisfy themselves on this point by asking questions and rigorously examining the school’s case.
  3. The admission authority (in this case, the Council) provides a presenting officer “to present the decision not to admit the child and to answer detailed questions about the case being heard and about the school”. The purpose of the second stage is for the panel to balance the case for the child to be admitted against the likely prejudice to the school in taking an additional child.

What happened

  1. Miss X previously complained to the Ombudsman about the school admission appeal held in the normal admissions round (before the school year started). The Ombudsman found fault and the Council agreed to arrange a date for a further appeal.
  2. The new appeal was held in September 2019. Miss X put her case to the appeal panel. She explained that her son, C, has numerous medical conditions that impact on his mobility. She explained her reasons for believing that her preferred choice of school was better for C than the one he currently attends. Miss X provided a number of letters from medical professionals involved with C.
  3. Miss X told the panel that information that was in the first appeal pack was missing from the second appeal pack. The Council said different information had been provided because it was a different appeal: the Council treated the second appeal as an in-year appeal rather than a normal admissions round appeal.
  4. Miss X said C could be considered as an exceptional case because of his medical, emotional and social needs. The Council questioned Miss X about C’s needs and the impact of these on C’s place at school.
  5. The panel considered C’s medical conditions and the impact of those conditions on C’s placement at school. The panel felt C’s current travel arrangements were reasonable. The panel said that medical reasons would need to be exceptional given the degree of prejudice of adding another pupil, and the evidence did not substantiate that. The panel decided to refuse Miss X’s appeal.
  6. The appeal clerk sent Miss X the decision letter the following day. This explained what had happened during the appeal, what information the panel had considered, Miss X’s case, and the decision. The letter said that while the panel had great sympathy with Miss X’s reasons for appealing and C’s circumstances, on balance it found Miss X’s grounds for appealing did not outweigh the prejudice caused to the school through admission of a further child.
  7. Miss X then complained to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

Missing papers

  1. Miss X complains that part of the Council’s appeal case was missing from the papers she received before the appeal (part a of the complaint).
  2. The Ombudsman’s previous decision was that the Council should arrange a date for a further appeal. The Council did this. The Ombudsman did not specify that this new appeal should be a fresh appeal on the same grounds as the first appeal. For this reason, I do not find fault with the Council for arranging an in-year appeal rather than a fresh ‘normal admissions round’ appeal.
  3. The Council says it provided the correct information to Miss X for an in-year appeal. I agree with the Council. In-year appeals do not always contain the same information as normal admissions round appeals. I do not find fault with the Council for this. I find that the Council’s papers contain all the information they should, as set out in the Code.
  4. Ultimately, the previous Ombudsman decision found that Miss X could not be certain that her previous appeal was properly considered. I find that this new appeal was properly considered.

New information at the hearing

  1. Miss X complains that the Council introduced new information at the hearing which she did not know about (part b of the complaint).
  2. Miss X says the Council told the panel that C stopped taking part in games lessons but re-started games lessons at a later date. She says the Council also contacted C’s school about reasons for his absences.
  3. There is nothing in the Code that says a council cannot ask for reasons for absences. The minutes of the appeal panel and the decision letter show that this information was not considered by the panel as a reason to refuse Miss X’s appeal.
  4. The Code says councils must supply the clerk with all relevant documents needed to conduct the hearing. The Code specifies the details that must be included. I find that the Council provided this information.
  5. The Council says that Miss X submitted evidence that C should be considered under the ‘highly exceptional medical/social’ category with her application form. It says the application form says the Council will share and obtain information from various sources to assess the application.
  6. The Council says to assess Miss X’s application it contacted C’s school to understand the impact of his conditions. The Council says it did not find grounds to accept C as ‘highly exceptional’. It says there was a discussion in the appeal hearing to explain to Miss X and the panel why the Council had not categorised C as ‘highly exceptional’.
  7. Taking into account all the above, I do not find fault for the Council raising these points in the appeal hearing.
  8. Miss X says the Council’s presenting officer told the panel he had spoken to C’s father, who Miss X is separated from. However, she says C’s father said he only spoke to the appeals clerk.
  9. The Council says C’s father called the Council and was put through to the manager of the admissions team who was the presenting officer. The Council says C’s father said he was going to attend the appeal, so he was directed to the appeal clerk. The Council says the presenting officer did not speak to C’s father any further than this.
  10. There is nothing in the Code that prevents a council from talking to a school or another parent and then bring that information to the appeal.
  11. The minutes of the appeal panel and the decision letter show that this information was not considered by the panel as a reason to refuse Miss X’s appeal. Ultimately, I find that the Council’s case contained all the information it should have, in line with the Code. For this reason, I do not find fault here.
  12. Miss X says the Council told the panel the wrong reason the previous Ombudsman complaint was upheld. The Council says it commented on the Ombudsman’s findings to make sure the panel did not think the last panel’s decision was unfair or wrong. It wanted to make sure the panel understood that the previous Ombudsman’s finding of fault was about the process.
  13. Further, the Council says the panel did not consider this as part of its decision-making. I find that this is backed up in the panel’s notes and the decision letter. For these reasons, I do not find the Council at fault.

Panel’s consideration of Miss X’s evidence

  1. Miss X complains that the panel did not consider some of the evidence she provided (part c of the complaint). She says the decision letter says the panel considered evidence from the podiatrist and the junior school, but she also provided information from C’s GP and a physiotherapist. She says there is no evidence this information was considered.
  2. I find that the clerk’s notes show that the panel specifically referred to the physiotherapist’s letter. The GP information is not different from the podiatrist’s information that is referred to in the decision letter.
  3. I find that it is clear from the records of the panel’s discussion and the clerk’s notes that the panel considered all the medical information Miss X provided. I do not find that a decision letter needs to list each individual piece of evidence the panel considered.
  4. For these reasons, I do not find the Council at fault.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and I do not uphold Miss X’s complaint. This is because there is no fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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