Caution: pitfalls ahead

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Ben Rooney advises on the hazards of the admissions and appeals system.

Along with the showers, April also brings school appeals. It can be a distressing time for parents fighting for a school place, but a stressful time too for governors and education professionals as they prepare to defend appeals or run panels to hear the estimated 70,000 cases expected this year.

In most cases, panels are very well-run, cases well-prepared. But some panels could not have been worse, and there are traps for the unwary.

About 1,000 appeals a year end as cases in front of the local government ombudsman, responsible for ruling on cases of suspected maladministration.

If you don't want to see your case in the ombudsman's annual report, take heed where others have failed.

The private briefing

Until quite recently it was common for appeal panels to be taken on a tour of the school by the head or governors. Seemingly innocuous - after all, shouldn't the panel know the school's problems and the consequences of allowing more children in? No, said the ombudsman, and the Government agreed. It was grossly unfair on parents. Why should the school's problems be shown but not the parents'? And parents had no idea what schools were saying.

more than one hat

Using governors on appeal panels, as well as presenting cases, is quite common. No problem - as long as they remember why they are there. Take the case of a panel member who was a governor of a rival school where the subject of the appeal had been given a place. When the parent complained about that school, the governor stepped in to say that he was sure the school could provide a very good education. Then there was a local education authority official advising a group of parents appealing to get a child into a community school. And who should turn up on the day as the LEA's presenting officer? Only the same person who had been advising them.

what we meant to say was...

Schools' published admissions criteria must be clear and objective. This can be a problem with faith schools. One church school's admissions criteria included "regular attendance at church". At appeal, the parents were told that regular meant "three or more times a month". If they wanted it to mean that, then that's what they should have said.

One school rejected parents on the grounds that they had not made the school first choice. The presenting officer told the appeal that the school had always done that. So why didn't it say that in the admissions criteria?

Appeal panels sometimes add conditions of their own, but they have no powers to do so. One panel upheld an appeal on the grounds that the parents' house sale went through. That may seem reasonable, but panels have no right to lay down terms. They can only uphold or reject appeals.

getting a bit too cosy

Panels must be independent of the school. A parent asked if the school discriminated against pupils from her area, and the chair of the panel jumped in to assuage her fears. But that is hardly evidence of its independence. It was the job of the representative of the admissions authority to explain and defend the decisions of the authority and answer questions. And the sight of the presenting officer and the panel having lunch together did nothing to persuade another parent of the likelihood of a fair hearing.

my mind is made up

Many parents feel that their pleas fall on deaf ears. The ombudsman might agree. After one particular investigation, the ombudsman was told by a panel member that "everyone knew the school was full". The same panel told the ombudsman that they would find it hard to allow appeals that did not refer directly to the admissions criteria, despite the code of practice being clear that parents could base their appeal on anything they liked.

unappealing One panel rejected an appeal because the parent had been rude and abusive - hardly grounds to deny the child a place.

not a word

Admissions authorities must tell parents at least seven days before their appeal of the case against them, and the case must be thorough and complete. The code is clear: it is not enough for admissions authorities to state that the published admissions number has been reached - they must also state what problems will arise from admitting more children. That is one of the biggest failings of admissions authorities, but too many fail to make the case before the hearing, putting the parents at a severe disadvantage on the day. This has not escaped the attention of the ombudsman.

the appeal from hell

The ombudsman found 15 faults in the admissions and appeal procedures.

These included:

* before the hearings, the panel consulted the governors about the number of appeals allowed, but the appellants were not involved in that discussion.

* the governors gave no evidence to support their assertion that they had correctly applied their admissions criteria, and the panel did not test that assertion.

* the governors' statement in advance did not try to show the prejudice to education in the school if more pupils were admitted, so appellants had no notice of the case to be made.

* at times, the panel operated with only two of three members - the third being absent. Yet the third member still took part in decisions about appeals, though she had not heard the evidence.

Ben Rooney is a governors' clerk and author of Win Your School Appeal. For more details see:

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