LGO highlights most common faults in school admission appeals

Report urges councils and schools to tighten up areas which are known to cause injustice.

The Local Government Ombudsman will today (9 November) warn school admission authorities that they face criticism when faults by a school admission appeal panel result in an unfair hearing, causing injustice to the parents and the child concerned.

The Ombudsman welcomes the Government’s publication of revised draft codes of practice on school admissions and appeals, which follows its 12 week consultation on proposals to overhaul a system which is too often complex, confusing and unfair for parents.

The Ombudsman independently investigates complaints about local authorities and certain other bodies in England. This includes investigating complaints about school admission appeals. The Ombudsman is concerned that, out of over 1,000 complaints it receives on this subject each year, the same faults seem to arise again and again. The report describes the areas where faults in appeals occur most often.

Parents have the right of appeal against an admission authority’s decision if their child is not allocated a place at the preferred school. The right of appeal is to an independent panel arranged by the relevant school admission authority – either the local authority or the governing body of the school itself. In most cases, the local authority plays an important role in selecting, training and organising appeal panels and ensuring a good supply of suitable panel members. Admission appeals are governed by the Government’s code of practice to ensure that hearings are impartial, structure and fair to all parties.

Dr Jane Martin, Ombudsman, said: “Every year we receive a large number of complaints on school admission appeals. While each case is different and receives individual attention, we are alert to trends and themes both within schools and across authority areas. We want to draw attention to the repeated mistakes we see, and help admission authorities to avoid these pitfalls in future.”

The Local Government Ombudsman received 1,195 complaints on school admissions in 2010/11; of these 28% led to some kind of remedy for the family – most commonly, a fresh appeal.

Serious problems are illustrated in the report by the stories of six parents and their children whose appeal hearings were not conducted fairly. They include: a panel accepting information from a council on home-to-school distance without checking it was accurate; a panel awarding places to children who attend ‘feeder’ schools, but not to other children; and a panel that went back to the admission authority for clarification after the hearing, but without giving the parents an opportunity to challenge the additional information provided.

The report highlights common areas where councils go wrong, which include: communication with the parents, both before and after the hearing; the decision on whether the school can accommodate more pupils or not; a lack of impartiality by the panel; procedural errors during the hearing; and failing to accurately record what took place at the hearing.

The report urges all admission appeal panels to:

  • provide clear written information to parents in good time before the appeal hearing
  • make sure their position is fully explained and understood by parents and panel members
  • ensure that parents are treated in exactly the same way as representatives of the admission authority
  • ensure each case is properly understood and addressed on its individual merits
  • make sure notes of the proceedings are full and legible, and
  • provide plain English decision letters to parents making very clear why the appeal has not succeeded.

If the Ombudsman finds an admission authority has acted unfairly, it can be asked to hold a fresh appeal with a different panel, offer a place at the preferred school (but only if the published admission criteria were applied wrongly), or review its admission criteria and/or its appeal procedures to prevent recurrence.

Article date: 09 November 2011

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