A recently upheld Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman complaint by a parent has reinforced the need for schools to review the quality of services offered by external organisations and local authorities in arranging Admission Appeal Hearings.
Mrs B complained about the process followed at her Admission Appeal Hearing, primarily that the Panel failed to consider her appeal in line with the School Admission Appeals Code 2012. The Ombudsman found that the Clerk did not make an accurate record of the hearing (including what was considered, the decisions taken and the reasons for these) and the Panel itself did not take the correct approach to the two stage test.
The school was voluntary aided and therefore its own 'admission authority', as set out in the School Admissions Code 2021. The Ombudsman noted that the school's decision to buy into an appeals service offered by its local authority to appoint Clerks and Panel members and make the arrangements for appeals was a contractual outsourcing arrangement in respect of the administration of the appeals only, and that the Governing Body of the school "remains responsible for ensuring the appeals function is carried out effectively and according to statutory requirements".
In upholding Mrs B's complaint, the Ombudsman inter alia directed the school to "review its arrangements for conducting appeals and its contractual arrangements with the local authority appeals service to satisfy itself:
- appeal panel members are appropriately trained and able to conduct appeals in line with the Code; and
- appeal panel clerks are appropriately trained to fulfil their role in line with the Code, which includes the importance of keeping accurate records of hearings and clear decision reasons."
This decision reinforces our longstanding advice and training on admission appeals (and indeed pupil exclusions, as the same principles would apply to a decision to outsource the administration of Independent Review Panel Hearings to external organisations or local authorities).
It should be noted that both of these functions for which responsibility/liability cannot be delegated are susceptible to other legal challenge by parents (for example, judicial review or discrimination claims) - it would be the 'admission authority' or 'responsible body' for the school (ie the Governing Body or Board of Trustees) who would be the defendant or respondent in these proceedings, not the local authority or other external organisation to whom the practical arrangements are delegated. For this reason, outsourcing contracts should also contain a suitable indemnity clause.
In view of the above, we recommend that schools and academy trusts conduct a critical review of both the contractual documents and the arrangements in practice where outsourcing is used, to ensure that all statutory requirements are being met, and that both parties are clear as to the functions they are carrying out and on whose behalf this is being done.
Joanna Goddard is a Senior Associate in the Education Team at VWV.