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Suffolk County Council (19 009 509)

Category : Education > School transport

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 11 Feb 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman has not found evidence of fault in the Council’s decision making or handling of Ms X’s school transport appeal.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complains the Council failed to properly consider her request and appeal for school transport for her daughter.

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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 a council’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 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have discussed the complaint with the complainant and considered the complaint and the copy correspondence provided by the complainant. I have made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have also considered Ms X’s comments on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Ms X asked the Council for school transport for her daughter, B, who was starting year 9. The Council said that B was not entitled to school transport.
  2. Ms X appealed against the Council’s decision at the first stage of its procedure. The Council wrote to Ms X in July confirming its decision that B was not entitled to school transport in accordance with the Council’s travel policy. It explained that the Council provided funded travel for children attending their nearest suitable school where the distance from home to school is over the statutory walking distance of two miles or more for children under eight, or three miles or more for children 8 years and over. The Council said that the nearest school was school Y, a faith school, which was 4.86 miles from her home. But B attended school Z which was not her nearest available school at 4.94 miles from her home. The Council noted Ms X appealed that she did not want B to attend a faith school. But it said that under its policy the nearest suitable school was one which “provides education appropriate to the age, ability and aptitude of the child”. The policy did not exclude faith schools.
  3. Ms X appealed further to the Council at the second stage of its procedure. she said the Council had stated the school B attended, school Z was not the nearest available school in its response. Ms X said that school Y may be the nearest available school, but it was not the nearest suitable school. This was because Ms X said her family did not hold the faith of school Y. She said the Council had changed policy recently which meant B’s older siblings had received school transport assistance. She pointed out that the difference in distance between the schools was only 0.08 miles.
  4. The Council acknowledged Ms X’s appeal and asked if she wanted to make verbal representations to the Education Transport Appeals Committee, or if not, the appeal could be considered by the Transport Officer’s Panel. Ms X stated she could not make verbal representations because of work commitments, and so asked the Transport Officer Panel to consider her appeal.
  5. The Transport Officer Panel considered Ms X’s appeal in August and sent her its decision. It did not uphold her appeal. It explained it had considered the Council’s current school travel policy. It apologised if there had been confusion in its communication regarding “the nearest suitable school”. It reviewed the legislation in The Education Act 1996 and Department for Education’s statutory guidance. “Home To School Travel and Transport Guidance.” These defined “the nearest suitable school” as “the nearest qualifying school with places available that provides education appropriate to the age, ability and aptitude of the child, and any SEN that the child may have.” It said there was nothing in this test regarding the religious ethos or otherwise of a school. The Panel considered that both schools were suitable. The Panel noted panel Ms X had specifically chosen school Z as her first preference and the Council had allocated B a place. If Ms X had applied for school Y as first preference, the Council would have allocated a place and B would have been eligible for school transport. The Panel noted the difference in the home to school distance to each school was small, but that school Y was the nearest.
  6. The Panel considered Ms X’s grounds that she did not wish B to be educated at a faith school. The Panel noted Extended Rights Eligibility could allow families on low incomes transport assistance due to parental religion (or lack of religion). But Ms X did not meet the low income criteria. The Panel confirmed that local authorities had no obligation to provide discretionary funded travel on the basis of religion or belief. The Council’s policy had for some years not offered any discretionary transport arrangements in respect of a parent’s religion or belief. Finally, the Panel said it considered there was no evidence of any exceptional circumstances in respect of B, and therefore it did not uphold Ms X’s appeal.

Analysis

  1. I have not found evidence of fault causing injustice regarding the Council’s consideration of Mrs X’s appeal. There was a short delay in advising Ms X of the Council’s decision at stage one, for which the Council has apologised. I do not consider this was fault.
  2. Ms X had an opportunity to make verbal representations but advised that she could not do so because of the time of the hearing. The Council confirms that if Ms X had wished to make verbal representations, she would have been able to make them at the next hearing date.
  3. I consider the Panel considered relevant factors including the Council’s policy and government guidance. It explained the reasons why it did not uphold Ms X’s grounds of appeal. It considered using its discretion, but decided that there was insufficient evidence of exceptional circumstances for it to do so.
  4. I have not seen evidence of fault in the Panel’s decision making. Therefore, as I explain in paragraph 2, I cannot question the decision itself.

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Final decision

  1. I have not found fault and so I have completed my investigation and closed the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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