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local government ombudsman criticises independence of school admission appeals panel

26 November 2007

In two reports issued on 8 November 2007, the Local Government Ombudsman ('LGO') has found that parents appeals against the refusal of places for their children at two voluntary aided Grammar schools were not considered in a fair and impartial manner. Aspects of the conduct of appeal panels have been criticised before by both the LGO and Council on Tribunals, who have identified particular difficulties with appeals conducted by voluntary-aided and foundation schools. The latest comments of the LGO should be noted by all schools that are their own admissions authority.

Background

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 an admissions authority has a duty to admit a child for whom an application is made unless the admission would prejudice the provision of education or the efficient use of resources. The governing bodies of voluntary-aided and foundation schools have the responsibility to make the necessary arrangements for appeals against a decision of a governing body to refuse to admit a child.

Facts

Three of the complainants sons had been successful in selection tests but, after the operation of the Governors oversubscription criteria, their applications had been unsuccessful as the school was, in the Governors view, full. The parents challenged those decisions by appealing to the Appeal Panel arranged by the Governors. Having been unsuccessful in those appeals the parents complained to the LGO that they had been deprived of their entitlement to have their appeals considered in a fair and impartial manner.

Findings of the Local Government Ombudsman

Having investigated the cases, the LGO found that there were inappropriate links between those involved in the administration and consideration of the appeals and those involved in the schools governance, which cast serious doubt on the independence of some members of the Appeal Panels. In particular the LGO found that there is too great a conflict of interest for a person to act both as the Clerk to the Governors and as the Clerk to an Appeal Panel, on which basis he could not be sure that the appeals were heard properly. As a result the LGO found that the schools were guilty of maladministration which had caused the complainants avoidable uncertainty and anxiety.

Implications

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 has recently brought further changes to the already complex law regulating admissions. With the development of Academies and Trust schools increasing numbers of schools are becoming their own admissions authority and hence for the first time having to set their own admissions criteria, organise Admission Appeal Panels and grapple with admissions law.

Admissions regulations and the School Admission Appeals Code of Practice identify certain categories of people as disqualified from membership of an appeal panel and further advises that there may be cases where it would not be appropriate for somebody to be a member, even if not disqualified from so doing. In addition the LGO has now recommended that school governors:

  • separate the functions of the Clerk to the Appeal Panel from those of the Clerk to the Governors
  • ensure that members and Clerks of Appeal Panels are independent of the schools and of any other schools or bodies connected with them.

Following the LGOs findings all the pupils were offered fresh appeal hearings, with one appeal being upheld.

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28Apr

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

Mark Blois

Mark Blois

Partner and Head of Education

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