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North Lincolnshire Council (20 001 445)

Category : Education > School admissions

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 27 Aug 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman does not have reason to investigate this complaint from a parent about the school admission appeal panel’s decision to turn down her appeal regarding a school place for her son. This is because there is no sign of fault in the appeal arrangements or the way the panel made its decision.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall call Mrs X, complained about the school admission appeal panel’s decision to refuse her appeal concerning a place for her son (‘Y’) at her preferred secondary school (‘the School’). In particular Mrs X complained that the panel did not take sufficient account of her appeal case. In addition Mrs X said the appeal process was unfair as she was not given enough information in advance about what evidence she could present to the panel.

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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 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. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
  2. We cannot question whether a school admission appeal 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. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information Mrs X’s representative provided about the complaint and Mrs X’s comments when we spoke on the telephone. I also gave Mrs X and her representative an opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision before I reached a final view about the case. In addition I took account of documents from the Council about Mrs X’s appeal.

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What I found

  1. Y will be starting at secondary school in September 2020.
  2. When Mrs X applied for a secondary school she listed the School as her first preference on her application form. But the Council turned down Mrs X’s application because all the places at the School went to children with a higher priority than Y under its admission criteria. In particular the successful applicants either lived in the catchment area, already had a sibling at the School or lived closer to it than Y.
  3. Instead the Council offered a place for Y at Mrs X’s second preference school.
  4. Mrs X appealed about Y being refused admission to the School. But the independent panel turned down her appeal. Mrs X then complained to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

  1. Appeal panels must follow the law when considering an appeal for a secondary school place. In particular the panel must consider whether:
  • the admission arrangements comply with the law;
  • the admission arrangements were properly applied to the child in question.

It must then consider whether admitting another child would prejudice the education of others. If the panel find there would be prejudice it must then consider the appellant’s arguments. If the panel decides the appellant’s case outweighs the prejudice to the school, it must uphold the appeal.

  1. In normal circumstances appeal panels must allow appellants the opportunity to appear in person and make spoken representations. But the Government has introduced temporary regulations and guidance relating to appeals in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. In particular the new guidance says admission authorities should not hold face-to-face hearings until it is safe. Instead they should hold hearings by telephone or video conference where possible.
  2. The Council decided to arrange video hearings for all of the appeals for the School. I do not see sign of fault in the Council’s decision to deal with the appeals in this way, given the circumstances and Government guidance.
  3. Mrs X said she was not provided with adequate information about how to present evidence to the Panel. But I am not convinced there is evidence to find fault with the Council in this respect.
  4. In particular I note the appeal form and guidance the Council sent in response to Mrs X’s request for an appeal encouraged appellants to provide as much information and supporting evidence as possible. It also gave examples of the kind of issues the appellant may wish to raise in their appeal. In addition I note the Council sent further information before the hearing explaining how the proceedings would be conducted and how to use the video application.
  5. The panel for Mrs X’s appeal decided that the School’s admission arrangements were lawful and correctly applied in Y’s case. The panel also agreed with the School’s case that admitting an additional pupil would cause prejudice to the School and the children already going there.
  6. But from the documents provided, I do not see there is any sign of fault in the way the panel considered these two matters in Y’s case. In my view the panel was reasonably entitled to reach the conclusions it did based on the information presented to it at the appeal.
  7. Mrs X said the process was intimidating and she was inhibited in presenting her case as a result. However from the records of the hearing I do not see evidence to suggest Mrs X was deterred in presenting her case because of any fault in the process. The appeal clerk’s notes from the hearing indicate that Mrs X was given a reasonable opportunity to say what she wanted to say to the panel, and it seems her presentation covered the main issues in her appeal case.
  8. Mrs X’s case related mainly to detrimental impact on Y’s mental health from not going to the School with all of his friends and most of his classmates from primary school, and how the School was much better suited to his needs than the offered school. Mrs X also pointed to the difficulty she would face in getting her children to their different schools on time if Y had to go to the offered school, which would not be a problem if he went to the School. In addition Mrs X referred to the longer and more dangerous walking route to the other school.
  9. However the panel decided that Mrs X’s case for Y to be admitted to the School did not outweigh the School’s case on prejudice. Therefore it refused her appeal.
  10. But having examined the records from Mrs X’s appeal I am not convinced that there is any sign of fault in the way the panel considered and decided matters in her case.
  11. In particular, I consider the clerk’s notes from the hearing and decision-making, and the panel’s decision letter, show that panel members understood and took suitable account of the information Mrs X provided and the case she presented at the hearing. It is also evident that panel members explored the issues with Mrs X in their questions on the day.
  12. Mrs X felt she had made a compelling case for Y to be admitted to the School, so she was understandably disappointed by the panel’s decision. But at the end of the day the panel was entitled to reach its own view about this matter, having weighed up the information it received from both sides at the appeal. However I have seen no sign of fault in the appeal process or in the way the panel reached its decision in Mrs X’s case which would give us reason to question its decision.
  13. In the circumstances I have concluded that we would not be justified in starting an investigation of Mrs X’s complaint.

Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman does not have reason to investigate Mrs X’s complaint about the appeal panel’s decision to refuse her appeal regarding her son’s admission to her preferred school. This is because there is no sign of fault by the panel in the way it considered and decided Mrs X’s case.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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