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London Borough of Barnet (21 009 581)

Category : Education > School admissions

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 16 Jun 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complained that the Council incorrectly applied the admissions criteria to her application for a place for her daughter at her preferred primary school. She also says the Appeal Panel failed to give due weight her arguments when deciding to refuse her appeal. We found no fault in the way the Council applied the admissions criteria or in the way the Appeal Panel considered Mrs X’s appeal.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complains that the Council, as admissions authority, incorrectly applied the admissions criteria to her application for a place for her daughter in Reception at her preferred primary school. She also says the Appeal Panel failed to give due weight to her arguments when reaching its decision to refuse her appeal.

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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 an appeal 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)
  2. If we are satisfied with an organisation’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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered:
    • Mrs X’s comments;
    • the information presented to the appeal panel, the clerk’s notes of the appeal hearing and the decision letter following the appeal; and
    • the current School Admissions Code and School Admission Appeals Code.
  2. Mrs X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Admission arrangements

  1. The primary school is a community school. The Council is the admission authority and is responsible for admissions and appeals. The admissions authority has to publish its admission arrangements including the way it determines priority if there are too many applications for the available places.
  2. It is a matter for the admissions authority to determine what the priority criteria are. It is free to set whatever criteria it likes, provided these are lawful and that it gives proper consideration to Government guidance.
  3. When considering applications for admission, the Council must work on the basis of the published admission arrangements.
  4. The Council applied the following criteria to allocate the places available:
        1. looked after children
        2. children with an exceptional medical, social or other need which the school is particularly able to meet;
        3. children with a sibling already at the school;
        4. children of teaching staff of the school where the member of staff has been employed at the school for two or more years;
        5. children living within the individual school’s defined area, with priority given to those who live closest to the school when measuring distance in a straight line;
        6. children living outside the individual school’s defined area, with priority given to those who live closest to the school.
  5. Mrs X applied for a place in Reception for her daughter, D. Her application was placed in category 5 as she lives in the school’s catchment area but did not meet any of the other priority criteria. Her application was unsuccessful because all places had been allocated.
  6. There were 218 applications for 60 places over two classes, so it was unavoidable that some parents would be disappointed. Parents who were not offered a place had the right to appeal to an independent appeal panel.

The appeal

  1. Independent school admission appeals panels must follow the law when considering an appeal. The law says the size of an infant class must not be more than 30 pupils per teacher. There are only limited circumstances in which more than 30 children can be admitted. There are special rules governing appeals for Reception and Years 1 and 2. Appeals under these rules are known as “infant class size” (ICS) appeals. Panels can only uphold these appeals in limited circumstances.  
  2. The Appeals Code says that, in an ICS appeal, the panel must consider whether:
    • admitting another child would breach the infant class size limit; 
    • the admission arrangements comply with the law; 
    • the admission arrangements were properly applied to the case; and 
    • the decision to refuse a place was one which a reasonable authority would have made in the circumstances. 
  3. Unless the appeal panel is satisfied that one of these points applies, it has no power to uphold an appeal.
  4. What is ‘unreasonable’ is a high test. The panel needs to be sure that to refuse a place was “perverse” or “outrageous”. For that reason, panels rarely find an admission authority’s decision to be unreasonable. 
  5. The Ombudsman’s role is to consider whether the appeal panel followed the School Admission Appeals Code. We do this by examining the panel’s papers and the notes taken by the clerk during the hearing. We do not have the power to overturn the panel’s decision, and we cannot give a child a place at the school. It is for the panel to decide what weight to give to the evidence it hears. As long as it properly considered the evidence put forward, we cannot question the merits of its decision.
  6. In this case, the panel correctly addressed the first stage of the procedure. The clerk’s notes of the proceedings record that it was satisfied the admission of another child would breach infant class size legislation. It was also satisfied that the admission arrangements complied with the law and had been properly applied.
  7. In these circumstances, the panel could only uphold Mrs X’s appeal if it concluded that the Council’s decision to refuse a place was so unreasonable as to be perverse. The panel considered this point and unanimously agreed this was not the case. So, it had no option but to refuse the appeal.
  8. Based on the evidence before the panel, I consider it had reasonable grounds for reaching this conclusion. D lives in the school’s catchment area but does not meet the criteria for any of the higher priority categories, for example having a sibling at the school. So, her application was considered purely on distance grounds. The furthest distance that a successful applicant in category 5 lived from the school was 0.418 miles which is closer to the school than Mrs X’s address.
  9. Mrs X told the panel that children living outside the catchment area and further away from the school than her family had been admitted to the school. The presenting officer explained that these children had fallen into a higher category, for example, they had a sibling at the school or special educational or medical needs.
  10. Mrs X says that the Council failed to consider her daughter’s health condition in refusing her application. However, the clerk’s decision letter following the appeal states that D had a health condition when she was younger but is now fully recovered and her ability to walk is unaffected. It is therefore clear that the panel considered this point and was satisfied that D did not have special medical needs.
  11. In conclusion, I am satisfied the panel properly considered the case. As there was no fault in the process, I cannot question its decision to refuse the appeal.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis that there is no evidence of fault in the way the Council applied the admissions criteria or in the way the Appeal Panel considered Mrs X’s appeal.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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