The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complained about how an independent appeal panel considered her case for a school place for her son, Y. The panel failed to properly consider Miss X’s case, which caused her uncertainty. The School has agreed to apologise to Miss X. The School has also agreed to remind the panel clerk of the proper process for holding and recording appeal hearings.
- Miss X complained about how an independent appeal panel considered her case for a school place for son, Y. Miss X said this meant Y did not receive a place at the school she wanted and caused both of them distress.
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 must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- We cannot question whether an admission authority or school admissions appeals panel’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)
- If we are satisfied with an admission appeal panel’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:
- all the information Miss X provided and discussed the complaint with her;
- the School’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided; and
- the School’s policies and relevant law and guidance.
What I found
Relevant law and guidance
- Statutory guidance about school admissions and appeals is in the “School Admissions Code” and the “School Admission Appeals Code (the Code)”, published by the Department for Education.
- In the normal admissions round, parents apply for secondary school places in October, for admission the following year. When applying to state funded schools, parents submit their preferences for schools to the local authority.
- Admission authorities make the offer of school places to children on 1 March the following year. Schools have a Published Admissions Number (PAN). This is the number of children they can safely accept that academic year. Schools must make an offer to every child they have space for. If a school receives more applications than they can accept, the admissions authority ranks the children according to their oversubscription criteria and offers places according to that ranking. Any children that do not receive places are added to a waiting list.
- Parents and carers have the right to appeal an admission authority’s decision not to offer their child a school place. An independent appeal panel decides the appeal. A clerk administers the appeal. A member of staff from the admission authority must attend the appeal to make the school’s case.
- Appeals have a two-stage decision making process. At the first stage, the admission authority makes its case. The panel must consider:
- whether the admission arrangements comply with the mandatory requirements of the School Admissions Code and Part 3 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998;
- whether the arrangements were correctly and impartially applied to the case; and
- whether admitting more children would prevent the school from providing efficient education or using its resources efficiently.
- what effect an extra admission would have on the school in the current year and later years;
- whether changes had been made to the school’s organisation or physical accommodation since it set the PAN; and
- the impact of admitting the child on the organisation and size of classes, the availability of teaching staff and effect on children already at the school.
The School’s PAN
- For the 2019/2020 admissions round the School’s PAN was 240. It decreased it for the 2020/2021 admissions. It consulted on that decision in September 2021 and published its decision on its website.
- In autumn 2020, Miss X submitted her three preferences for Y’s secondary schools. She named a school for which Y needed to pass an exam as her top preference. She named another faith school (School A) as her second preference and Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School (the School) as her third. In late 2020, Miss X’s work circumstances changed and she lost access to a car for the school run.
- On 1 March 2021, the local authority told Miss X Y had been accepted to School A. This was because her first preference did not have space. Miss X later said she wanted to change her second preference to the School. She said this was because the change in her circumstances meant she was no longer driving to the area of School A for work.
- The School was oversubscribed and so did not offer Y a place. Miss X appealed its decision.
- The independent appeal panel held the stage one in late May 2021 as a group hearing which all parents accessed at the same time.
- Later that day, the panel held the second stage with Miss X. The School said:
- it had not offered Y a place on 1 March 2021 because he had already received an offer at higher preference school;
- Miss X asked for a change of preference after it made offers for places; and
- it had placed Y in the fourth priority category on its waiting list.
- she felt Y would be at risk if he was made to travel to School A as it would take three hours in total by several buses. She felt it would affect his mental health as he was not used to public transport;
- the travel would mean he would miss out on extra-curricular activities;
- she preferred the school as it was Catholic;
- she was looking to move into its area; and
- Y had a friendship network in the area.
- why she had initially placed School A as her preference;
- she felt asking Y to attend School A was a safeguarding issue because it would be too much to expect him to travel to it on public transport; and
- the School’s PAN had decreased to 210 without good reason.
- the main focus of Miss X’s appeal was the logistics of travel to School B;
- it did not feel the travel was a safeguarding issue; and
- it “didn’t feel anything in [Miss X’s] case ‘coupled’ with her arguments over travel”.
The panel unanimously decided not to uphold her appeal.
- A few days later the panel sent Miss X its decision letter. The letter set out the School’s case at stage one and its response to questions from parents. The letter said the School had set out how it consulted on its decision to decrease the PAN and its reasons for doing so. This included:
- some areas of the School were not suitable for teaching;
- it did not have the staffing or budget resources to cope; and
- there were logistical issues with catering, moving around the building safely and traffic outside the school.
- The School has not sent me any records from the hearing that show how the panel considered the School’s case at stage one. However, its decision letter sets out the School’s case in detail and explains how the panel made its decision. I am therefore satisfied the panel properly held the stage one hearing, but was at fault in how it recorded it.
- The Code sets out the decision making process the panel needed to go through at stage two. It should have balanced Miss X’s case against the prejudice of admitting Y to the School. Although the panel considered Miss X’s arguments suitably, the evidence I have seen does not show the panel then decided whether they outweighed the prejudice of admitting Y. Therefore, I find the panel cannot show it properly completed the balancing exercise and was at fault.
- Together, the faults in paragraph 28 and 29 mean Miss X cannot be assured the panel correctly considered her appeal, which caused her uncertainty. The Ombudsman would typically recommend the panel hold a new appeal to remedy that injustice. However, Miss X has declined this as Y is settled in his new school.
- Within one month of the date of my final decision, the School will apologise to Miss X for the uncertainty the faults caused her.
- Within three months of the date of my final decision, the School will:
- remind the panel clerk they must keep proper records of both parts of the appeal hearings, including how the panel balanced the parents case against that of the School.
- I have completed my investigation. I found fault causing injustice. I have made a recommendation to remedy that injustice and prevent the fault occurring again.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman