The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs T complains about the independent appeal panel’s decision not to admit her child to her preferred primary school. The Council was at fault in that the clerk did not properly record the panel’s deliberations or the reasons for its decision. The Council was also at fault in that the decision letter did not properly explain the reasons for the panel’s decision. To remedy the injustice caused, the Council has agreed to offer Mrs T a fresh appeal with a different panel and a new clerk and to review the training needs of its clerks and panel members.
- Mrs T complains that the independent appeal panel failed to properly consider her appeal against the refusal of a place for her daughter at her preferred primary 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 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 considered:
- Mrs T’s comments;
- the information presented to the appeal panel, the clerk’s notes of the appeal hearing and clerk’s decision letter following the appeal; and
- the School Admission Appeals Code.
What I found
Legal and administrative background
- Independent appeal panels must follow the law when considering an appeal. The panel must consider whether:
- the admission arrangements comply with the law; and
- the admission arrangements were properly applied to the case.
- Mrs T made an on-time application for a place in Reception for her daughter, R. School X was her first preference. I was offered a place at her second preference school, School Y. Mrs T appealed.
- The Council’s written case stated that the published admission number (PAN) for the reception class at the school was 17. The Council had offered places up to the PAN. It argued that any additional child would prejudice the provision of efficient education and the efficient use of resources at the school.
- The Council explained that: there were a higher than average number of children with additional needs across the school; the classrooms are up to capacity and there is no room for additional furniture; the fire exits are not within classrooms which can cause delay in evacuating the school; there is no separate ICT suite; lunchtimes and break times are split to alleviate health and safety issues and congestion; there are only four toilets for the children’s use; and there is limited outdoor space.
- Mrs T’s written case explained that she is disabled and relies on her parents for a lot of support. R started at School Y in September 2019 but, on 26 September, Mrs T received a telephone call from the head teacher at School X offering R a place. R spent Friday afternoon at the school and it was arranged that she would start the following Tuesday. R was very pleased to be attending her preferred school where she had friends. On Monday Mrs T received a telephone call from the head teacher saying R would not be able to attend School X after all. The head teacher had offered the place based on the School’s waiting list. However, the Council’s waiting list was different. Mrs T said this was very upsetting for R.
- At the appeal hearing the Council presented its case. The appeal panel then heard Mrs T’s case. The panel decided to refuse the appeal.
- The School Admissions Appeals Code states, “The clerk must ensure an accurate record is taken of the points raised at the hearing, including the proceedings, attendance, voting and reasons for decisions”.
- The clerk’s notes do not comply with the Code. At the balancing stage they do not record the panel’s deliberations or the reasons for its decision. They simply list the information provided by the school. There is no mention of the arguments put forward by Mrs T.
- The form completed by the clerk states, “Note key factors of case for child and that of admission authority including:
- whether P.A.N is appropriate
- case put by admission authority
- appellant’s reason for expressing preference”.
The decision letter
- The Code says the decision letter must give clear reasons for the panel’s decision, including how and why issues of fact or law were decided by the panel during the hearing.
- The clerk’s decision letter to Mrs T explained the panel decided not to grant her appeal because it would be detrimental to the educational provision of children already in Reception at School X for another child to be admitted. The letter stated the panel did not accept Mrs T’s case was sufficiently compelling to outweigh the prejudice that could be caused to the school by the admission of another child.
- However, the letter does not explain why the panel reached its decision. Failure to do so is fault and causes Mrs T uncertainty. The decision letter does not allow her to understand the reasons behind the panel’s decision. To Mrs T, her arguments are all reasons why she should have been offered a place at School X, so the panel’s decision does not make sense. This is why the appeals code requires the panel to give reasons for its decision. The decision letter should address the appellant’s arguments.
- To remedy the injustice caused the Council has agreed that, within one month of the Ombudsman’s final decision, it will offer Mrs T a fresh appeal for her daughter for School X with a different panel and a new clerk.
- Clerks and panel members are reminded of the importance of accurately recording the panel’s deliberations and the reasons for its decision and clearly communicating these to the appellant. The Council has agreed that, within three months of the Ombudsman’s final decision, it will review the training needs of its clerks and panel members in this regard.
- I uphold Mrs T’s complaint. There was fault in the appeal leading to injustice.
- I have completed my investigation on the basis that the Council has agreed to implement the recommended remedy.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman