Waltham Forest LBC (01/A/3107)
Special educational needs
'Mrs Akbar' (not her real name for legal reasons) complained that there was unreasonable delay by the council in issuing an amended statement of special educational needs when her daughter transferred from a mainstream secondary school to a special school in September 2000.
The ombudsman finds that the council failed to reconcile conflicting information about what Mrs Akbar wanted for her daughter, and failed to issue an amended statement naming the special school as suitable provision to meet the child's special educational needs. Mrs Akbar was therefore prevented from exercising her right to appeal to the special educational needs tribunal against the council's decision that her daughter should attend that school. Mrs Akbar withdrew her daughter from the school in November 2000. The council delayed until November 2001 in arranging for the child to be admitted to another school and, in the interim, failed to make any educational provision for her until June 2001, when home tuition was provided.
The ombudsman concludes that there was a series of administrative failings by the council which amount to maladministration causing injustice to Mrs Akbar and her daughter.
The ombudsman recommends that the council should pay Mrs Akbar the sum of£2,000 to enable her to arrange private tuition to help her daughter catch up with her studies, plus the sum of£250 for her own time and trouble. He further recommends that the council should review its procedures for dealing with requests for changes of school placements for children with statements of special educational needs, that it should issue clear guidance to officers and schools on those procedures, and that it should amend the wording of the standard letter which it sends to parents with statements.
East Sussex CC (01/A/8869)
'Mr Meadows' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained about his application for a place for his son in the reception infant class of a primary school, and the appeal against the refusal of a place.
Under the relevant provisions of legislation, an appeal panel could only uphold an appeal in these circumstances if it was satisfied either that the child was wrongly denied a place because the published admission arrangements were not correctly applied, or that the decision of the admissions authority was unreasonable.
The ombudsman finds that the appeal panel had reasonable grounds for being satisfied that the published admission arrangements were properly applied. But the ombudsman is not satisfied that the question of whether the decision of the admissions authority was unreasonable was properly considered.
Mr Meadows' case for arguing that the decision of the council was unreasonable was that it was absurd that the council said he lived 1797 metres from the school (more than twice the actual distance) because the council only measured byroad; that it was wrong of the council not to take into account a footpath which was surfaced, lit, maintained by the council and shown on the Ordnance Survey map; and that children said by the council to be living 'nearer' to the school would be walking past his house on the way to school.
The ombudsman is not satisfied that Mr Meadows' points about the circumstances of his child were properly taken into account in the panel's decision or that his arguments were properly considered. In particular, the ombudsman finds that:
* advice given to the appeal panel by the council took no account of the fact that the court of appeal has said that consideration of reasonableness can include the circumstances of the child as well as the circumstances of the school (and that the advice on this point in the Code of Practice on Appeals is unjustified);
* the way the appeal panel considered whether the decision of the admissions authority was unreasonable was that members considered whether the admission arrangements were correctly applied, but they did not properly consider the other, quite separate, question of whether the council's decision was unreasonable;
* the approach followed by the panel in this appeal was inconsistent with their approach to two other appeals;
* the panel members were influenced by a point which was not canvassed in the appeal and which Mr Meadows had no opportunity to counter, and that was unfair;
* there were two significant factors known to the council at the time of the appeal but not appreciated by Mr Meadows and the panel members, and it was clear that, if the panel members had known about those points, two of them at least might have been influenced.
The ombudsman concludes that the appeal for Mr Meadows' son was not fair and satisfactory. That was maladministration and it caused injustice.
The ombudsman recommends that the council should:
* make Mr Meadows an ex gratia payment of£250 to compensate him for the uncertainty, anxiety and distress to him and his family, and for his time and trouble in pursuing the complaint;
* review and update its advice for appeal panels and parents about infant class appeals.
North Yorkshire CC (00/C/17287, 01/C/5299, 6870 & 16234)
Four people complained about the way that a selection appeal panel set up by the council considered their appeals about whether their children were of the appropriate ability or aptitude for a grammar school education. For legal reasons, the names used are not the real names of the complainants.
'Mr Owen' complains about a form completed by the child's headteacher, which he considers to be inappropriate. The ombudsman endorses his view but does not consider the Panel was misled about the child's ability. The council has already changed the form.
'Mrs Henry' complains about a failure by the council to provide to her, in advance, information about the effect of coaching, and 'Mr Smith' says that this information should have been provided to all parents. The ombudsman agrees that Mrs Henry should have been given the information that she sought, but says that not all parents needed to be told. However, the ombudsman does not consider that the outcome of Mrs Henry's appeal would have been any different, and the Council now tells parents where to find the information.
Mrs Henry and Mr Smith complain that the standard required of children in another selective area is always lower. The council's criterion for a grammar school education is the top 28% of children in the local area taking the selection tests and is therefore a relative test. The ombudsman sees no grounds for criticism.
'Mr Cole' complains that the Panel's attitude towards his son's headteacher (who attended the appeal) was antagonistic and patronising. The ombudsman does not uphold this complaint. Mr Cole also says that fewer of the appeals heard later were upheld but the ombudsman found no real evidence to support this.
The ombudsman also considered the status and remit of the selection appeal panel. The ombudsman had reservations about this. Nevertheless, she considers that only the courts could determine whether the selection appeals should be conducted on a statutory basis and take account of the reasons a parent advanced for preferring a grammar school. The ombudsman criticises the letter sent to parents once a school place had been decided because the letter did not make clear that unsuccessful appellants could make a further appeal to an admissions appeal panel.
The ombudsman finds some maladministration but limited injustice to the complainants. She seeks no remedy, but asks the council to ensure that parents are properly informed about their rights of appeal.
Local settlement report
Birmingham City Council (00/C/16780)
Social services for children
'Mr Barker' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained that the council failed to safeguard his children during a time when they were looked after by his former partner. He was also concerned that the council had failed to implement recommendations arising out of its own investigation of his complaint.
The ombudsman upholds the complaint, finding it 'a profoundly disturbing case'. There were persistent failures by the council to investigate concerns raised about the children. The attitude of staff towards Mr Barker was 'inexcusable'.
The ombudsman finds that the children suffered significant neglect and ill-treatment, some of which could have been avoided if maladministration had not occurred. The precise extent of injustice was, however, difficult to judge.
The council did, however, act promptly on recommendations arising out of its complaints procedure. It has now accepted fault and agreed to pay appropriate compensation to Mr Barker and to his children (to be held in trust until they are 18).