School admissions

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at parents whose child has not been offered a place at their preferred school and who may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman. (If your concerns are about infant class size, see our fact sheet on infant class size appeals).

My child did not get a place at the school we applied to. Can I complain to the Ombudsman?

In some cases, yes. The Ombudsman is not another level of appeal and cannot question decisions if they were taken properly by the admissions authority (the body making the decision on a place) or the appeal panel.

The Ombudsman can consider your complaint if you think that a place at a school was refused because of a mistake by the admissions authority, or if your appeal was handled incorrectly.

You can also complain if you have asked for an appeal and the admissions authority has not arranged an appeal hearing for you within a reasonable time.

You can complain to the Ombudsman if the school you have applied to is a community, foundation, voluntary aided, voluntary controlled or nursery school. We cannot deal with complaints about academies, independent (private) schools, free schools or city technology colleges. If a school converts to an academy during the admissions process, we may be able to consider a complaint. 

How do I complain?

If you are refused the school place you asked for and you want to pursue the matter, the first thing you need to do is to make an appeal to an independent appeal panel. The admissions authority should tell you how to do this.

If your appeal to the appeal panel is not successful and you think that the admissions authority or appeal panel has acted incorrectly then you can complain to the Ombudsman.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the admissions authority or the appeal panel has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact us page or complete an online complaint form.

If your complaint is about the refusal of a nursery school place you will not be able to appeal to an appeal panel so you can complain to us as soon as you have had your complaint considered by the admissions authority.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We consider whether the admissions authority or appeal panel has done something wrong in the way it went about dealing with your application or appeal. Some of the issues we can look at are:

  • that the admissions authority failed to apply the admission criteria properly or fairly
  • that the appeal panel did not follow the proper procedure set out in the Government’s School Admissions Appeal Code
  • that the appeal panel did not take relevant information into account in reaching its decision, or took irrelevant information into account
  • that the decision letter did not give reasons for the decision, and
  • that the panel did not act independently.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the admissions authority or appeal panel was at fault?

The Ombudsman cannot overturn an appeal panel’s decision. But if we find that something has gone wrong in the way your application or appeal was dealt with that might have affected the decision, we may:

  • ask the admissions authority to hold a fresh appeal with a different panel
  • ask the admissions authority to offer a place at the school you wanted. This only happens occasionally where, for example, it is clear that the published admission criteria have been applied wrongly and your child has been denied a place as a result, or
  • recommend that the admissions authority reviews its appeal procedures so that the problems you experienced don’t keep happening to other parents.

What if my child has a statement of special educational needs?

If you are unhappy about your school offer, you need to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability). That is a national body, not a local one. We cannot consider a complaint about that appeal.

We could consider a complaint about any delay by a council in arranging an offer of a place at a school once the final statement has been issued.

What if my complaint is about a waiting list?

Waiting lists must be run fairly and in line with the admission authority's published admission criteria. If your problem is just about a waiting list, you cannot appeal to an appeal panel so you can make your complaint straight to us, once the admission authority's complaints process has been completed. 

School admission appeals during the Coronavirus / Covid-19 outbreak

The Government has introduced emergency legislation about how school admission appeals can operate due to the Covid-19 outbreak. These new rules started to be used on 24 April 2020 and apply to appeals made between then and 31 January 2021, and to appeals lodged before 24 April that had not yet been decided.

The new regulations allow appeals to be conducted remotely or decided using written submissions only. They change what happens if panel members withdraw from a hearing and change the timetable for hearing school appeals.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mrs X complained about the way the admission appeal for her daughter was handled. One of the problems was that she did not know until she got to the hearing how the distance from her home to the school was measured, or why she did not meet the distance criterion. The Ombudsman found that the school should have provided information about this in the papers circulated in advance of the hearing. There were also other faults in the way the appeal was dealt with. The appeal panel did not consider properly whether the governing body had applied the admission criteria correctly, and did not make notes showing how it came to its decision. The school agreed to hold a fresh appeal hearing with different panel members and a different clerk.
Mr Y complained that the appeal panel had unreasonably refused his appeal for a school place for his son. Although he made his application for a place after the closing date, he had another child already at the school and argued that it would be impossible for him to transport his children to different schools. We found that there was no fault in the way in which the appeal was considered. The parties had the opportunity to make their cases, and there was nothing unreasonable in the way in which the appeal panel had made its decision.

Other sources of information

ACE Education Advice & ACE Education Training (ACE) at www.ace-ed.org.uk

Government advice on school admissions at www.gov.uk/schools-admissions

Government advice on school admission appeals at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/admission-appeals-for-school-places

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

October 2020

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