Cambridgeshire County Council (19 005 031)

Category : Education > School transport

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 30 Aug 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate Mrs X’s complaint about the Council’s decision not to provide her son with free transport to school. This is because there is not enough evidence of fault by the Council to warrant an investigation by the Ombudsman.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complains about the Council’s decision not to provide her son with free transport to school.

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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 must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
  • it is unlikely we would find fault, or
  • it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
  • it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered Mrs X’s complaint to the Ombudsman and information from the Council. I also gave Mrs X the opportunity to comment on a draft statement before reaching a final decision on her complaint.

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What I found

  1. Mrs X applied for her son to start secondary school in September 2019. Mrs X listed a single preference on her application for a school place. The Council could not offer Mrs X’s son a place at her preferred school. It therefore offered a place at the closest school in the county to her home with spaces.
  2. Mrs X asked the Council to provide her son with free transport to school. The Council refused her application on the basis he would not be attending the designated (closest) school to home. Mrs X appealed the decision and the Council referred her to its home to school transport policy. This says that if a parent does not include their catchment school as a preference, when they apply for a school place, there is no entitlement to free transport. Mrs X had not listed her catchment school as a preference – if she had – the Council would have offered him a place. The Council refused her appeal for free transport.
  3. Mrs X asked the Council to consider her appeal at the next stage of its process. Mrs X attended the appeal which was considered by a sub-committee of elected members. The Council’s representative repeated its policy and drew attention to a ‘tick box’ on the paper form parents can use to apply for a school place. This asks parents to confirm they had read and understood the Council’s “Next Steps” document. This provides advice on the application process and explains to parents the consequences of not listing a catchment school as a preference.
  4. In response to questions from Mrs X and the committee, the Council’s representative said the online version of the application form for school places was the same as the paper one. During the appeal, Mrs X explained that the online system allowed her to list only a single school. She said the Council’s website only recommended parents read the “Next Steps” document. Mrs X said she felt the Council was responsible for providing her son with free transport to school. She presented the other reasons she wanted the Council to provide her son with transport.
  5. The committee wrote to Mrs X after the appeal. The committee decided the Council had properly applied its policy and there were no extenuating circumstances meaning it should provide free transport. The committee’s letter said that if Mrs X applied for a place at her catchment school, it should be considered by the Council with a view to placing her son on the school’s waiting list. The committee also requested that information provided to parents about the school admissions process be reviewed.
  6. In her complaint to the Ombudsman, Mrs X says she has now received a copy of her online application for a school place. She says this does not ask parents to confirm they had read the “Next Steps” booklet – as the Council presented during her appeal. Mrs X says that if she had read the guide, she “may have thought differently about my chosen preferences (or lack of).” Mrs X’s complaint also refers to the Council only allowing parents to list three preferences when applying for a school place. In her complaint, Mrs X said “I believe that there is no legal basis for the Council to require a parent to put the nearest school as a first preference to qualify for free school transport.”
  7. The role of the Ombudsman is to look for administrative fault. We are not an appeal body and cannot criticise the merits of a council’s decision when there is no fault in the decision-making process. It is also not for us to set a council’s school admissions or school transport policy. These are decisions for council officers and elected members.
  8. The statutory guidance on home to school transport sets out the categories of children eligible for free transport to school. This includes children who live over the statutory walking distance and attend the “nearest qualifying” school. The guidance says that “At the point when transport eligibility is considered, the prospect of being able to secure a place in an alternative (usually nearer) school must be a real one. For most cases this will be during the normal school admissions round when places are allocated.”
  9. The Council originally refused Mrs X’s application on the basis her son was not attending the nearest qualifying school. It explained that if she had listed her catchment school as a preference, her son would have been offered a place. This decision was in line with the part of the statutory guidance I have set out above. It was not fault for the Council to refuse her application.
  10. We look at each case individually, and on its merits, but the Ombudsman generally takes the view that it is not fault for a council to refuse free transport when a parent does not list their catchment school as a preference. Also, the Council does not require parents to list their catchment school as their first preference – but merely as one of the schools on their application. Information on the Council’s website clearly explains its transport policy and the implications of not listing the catchment school as a preference.
  11. The Council considered Mrs X’s appeal for transport and refused it at the first stage of its policy. The stage 1 letter explained the Council’s decision. The Council arranged a stage 2 hearing. In line with the statutory guidance, Mrs X could attend the hearing and present her case. The notes from the hearing show that the Council and Mrs X presented their respective arguments. The committee asked questions. It is clear there was confusion about whether the information on the online and paper forms matched. The Council’s officer may well have been wrong in what they said.
  12. But the role of the committee was to consider the information they were presented with. The committee needed to decide if the Council’s policy had been properly applied. It needed to consider if there were any circumstances warranting an exception to the Council’s transport policy. The evidence I have seen shows the committee did properly consider Mrs X’s appeal. It considered the information before it and reached a decision it was entitled to. The discrepancy between the online and paper forms used to apply for a school place does not go to the heart of the committee’s decision. On balance, there is not enough evidence of fault in the committee’s consideration of Mrs X’s appeal, or the Council’s policies, to warrant an investigation by the Ombudsman.
  13. The committee explained that Mrs X’s son could be placed on the waiting list for her preferred school, and recommended the Council review the information it provides to parents. An investigation by the Ombudsman could not achieve anything more.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman will not investigate Mrs X’s complaint. This is because there is not enough evidence of fault by the Council to warrant an investigation by the Ombudsman.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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