Council and independent panel criticised over admission appeals for faith school

An independent appeal panel’s flawed and unacceptable approach to school admission appeals led to serious faults.

An independent appeal panel’s flawed and unacceptable approach to school admission appeals led to serious faults, finds Local Government Ombudsman, Anne Seex. In her report, issued today (15 October 2010) she says: “The way the panel conducted its decision making and the decisions that it made probably amounted to the worst instance of multiple maladministration in a school admission appeal investigated by the Ombudsman’s office.” Blackburn with Darwen Council had organised and clerked the panel. The inexperience and lack of training of the clerk together with the inexperience of the chair were significant factors in the fault, said the Ombudsman.

Parents had appealed to the independent appeal panel for their children to have places at a very popular and successful faith school. The parents of two children whose appeals were unsuccessful then complained to the Ombudsman about the way that the panel dealt with their appeals.

The investigation found that the school had appointed the Council to organise and clerk the panel. The Council had appointed someone with no experience and training to clerk the meetings. The panel selected a chair who had no previous experience of school admission appeals.

The appeal panel accepted that the school had proven its case that to give more children places would prejudice the efficient education of those already admitted or the efficient use of resources. The school had explained that it had no spare classrooms; each classroom was full; the youngest classes were being taught in attic rooms where the sloping roof made it impossible for adult teachers to reach each desk; the only communal area, a hall, had to be used for drama, sport, communal activities, and any out-of-class group work. Despite accepting this case, the panel decided to give places to a further 30 children (not including either of the complainants’ children).

The clerk’s notes were so inadequate that the Ombudsman’s investigators had to use information gained by interviews to piece together how the panel reached its decisions.

The serious maladministration found in the appeal panel’s decision making included:

  • failing to address the issue of whether the case presented by each parent for their child to be given a place outweighed the prejudice to the efficient education of pupils already admitted or the efficient use of resources
  • deciding to give places to all the children whose parents were members of the mosques and all those who had siblings at the school
  • creating an entirely new criterion of the “…connections, links, support of the school…” of the children’s familiesm that contravened the Admissions Code and which the panel had no power to create, and
  • giving places to children by reference to the criterion that it created.

The maladministration by the Council included:

  • failing to explain to parents why their child had not been given a place at the school they wanted
  • appointing an inexperienced and untrained person as clerk
  • failing to provide the panel with advice and guidance about the requirements of the Appeals Code and the proper approach it should take to its decision making
  • failing to make adequate notes of the panel’s decision making
  • providing legal advice to the panel without the parents present and without it being recorded, and
  • issuing decision letters that did not explain the panel’s decisions and that were not signed by the clerk or the chair.

The Ombudsman found that the school could not be held responsible for the actions of the Council which it had appointed to act as its agent, or of the independent appeal panel.

The school was responsible for one act of maladministration in not noticing that it had amended its admissions criteria to comply with a decision by the Schools Adjudicator in a way that meant it would not comply until 2011.

As soon as the school became aware of the Ombudsman’s concerns it arranged fresh hearings with a new independent appeal panel for all the parents who had appealed. Three of the 32 who appealed again at this stage were successful, including one of the parents who complained to the Ombudsman.

The school then implemented all the recommendations made in an earlier draft of this report. In connection with a complaint made about a 2010 admission appeal the Ombudsman has seen documents that show the faults identified in the information provided to parents by the Council have also been corrected.

Report ref nos 09 001 930 & three others

Article date: 15 October 2010