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Wednesday, 10 August 2016 07:06

My Final Appeal and - Medway Council Incompetent Yet Again

Whilst I have at last decided to retire completely from offering my full appeals service after twelve years I shall, however, continue to run my telephone (and FaceTime) Advisory Service which appears to meet a great need, covering school admissions including secondary schools. This of course means I shall still be very busy between now and the end of October. The Service also covers many other educational issues affecting Kent and Medway families, mainly discussed in these pages. I shall expand this to provide a telephone advisory service for appeals and am currently considering the best way to do this. It is clearly going to take time to revise the pages of the website to reflect this decision. 

I also propose to write several articles and expand the information and advice about appeals on the Information pages - the most popular page currently looks at Kent Grammar School Appeals, currently standing at 47,762 hits. None of this takes away from what I regard as the excellent free advice service on admissions and appeals offered by Kent County Council Admissions, always worth a phone call first, although they are not allowed to wander into many areas I cover!

However, my final appeal was to be a classic example of the occasional parental nightmare that comes along, with Medway Council - who else - the villain of the piece.....

The overwhelming majority of appeals my clients have attended have been well organised, conducted in a courteous atmosphere, with an Appeal Panel and Presenting Officer from the Admission Authority simply setting out to establish the facts of the case in order for the Panel to reach a decision. However, some have gone spectacularly wrong, with parents enduring a torrid experience, at its worst exemplified by one of my cases that made the front page of The Times, several years before this website came into being. See Footnote below. 

Medway Council has had a long history of aggressive defence of admission appeals, and I used to get numerous reports of distressed parents who felt they had been put under unreasonable pressure. However, the Council is now responsible for only a small number of appeals in its Medway controlled primary schools. You will find the most recent appeal statistics here.

In the case in question, which was unreasonably delayed by the Council until the last week of term, the responsible adults were grandparents of a child who had had a very difficult medical history and troubled home life. The case was a Junior School Appeal that focused on powerful medical evidence that the school appealed for was the only one suitable for the child, together with the physical impossibility of even getting to an alternative school, challenged by a feeble defence case that there would be prejudice if the child were admitted.

it should have been an open and shut hearing underlined by failings by the Admission Authority, but this is Medway. The Presenting Officer, described to me by those present as a 'Cold Rottweiler' appeared determined to win the case by sheer force of character, having in effect no evidence to go on. 

Central to the defence was that the classrooms were too small, as they were equipped with double desks and there was insufficient room for another - "even to add a single pupil is a challenge as this will require a full double desk". Our case pointed out that in fact, in one of the three classes the school would have to admit 31 children rather than 30 anyway, as twins had straddled places 90 and 91 in the allocation list and under the rules both were given places. So, the final double desk in the classroom would actually have an empty space in it - - but this cut no ice with the defence. The Panel joined in asking why the Authority had provided no data such as size of classrooms or other areas, which is normally provided in school appeals (at least with Kent County Council) without getting an answer, as the Presenting Officer was clearly unprepared.  

The Local Authority case argued that the school allocated and the school appealed for were identical distances apart, both astonishingly exactly 2547.2198 metres distant according to the paperwork. the statistical chances of this occurring were some 0.000001%, effectively zero, but still the Presenting Officer  considered this must be true rather than that a mistake could have happened. Self-evidently, looking at the map of routes provided, the school allocated was much further than the one requested, surely an important piece of evidence, but by now I am guessing the Appeal Panel foresaw the outcome and weren't interesting in holding up proceedings to rectify it. 

As it happens, the route provided by Medway Council included a path across a field up a lengthy very steep hill, somewhat of a challenge for a girl who sometimes travelled with splints or occasionally by wheelchair! We also provided evidence that the only alternative route by public transport entailed walking along an extremely dangerous narrow road with no footpaths for a kilometre, to catch the first possible bus at 10.00, arriving in school for eleven - just two hours late for school, with no parental transport available. Apparently not relevant.   

All this before we come to the medical evidence. Medway Council was given good warning there was no indication it had been taken into account as required before a decision could be made on allocation but, by the time of the appeal all they could offer was that the evidence had been sent to the school to make a decision and there had been no answer. This is simply not good enough as Medway Council being the Admission Authority has the legal RESPONSIBILITY to make a decision and cannot blame the school if it is not taken. Yes, they should consult the school, which is in any case unlikely to have the medical skills necessary to come to a conclusion in such a case and would need to refer back to the Authority. But, when it is pointed out in good time that no decision has been made (the Council having acknowledged the information was received), the Council cannot just ignore its responsibilities to come to a conclusion, by waiting until the appeal to blame the school. This again leaves the Panel unable to make an informed  decision and the appeal should properly have been adjourned until the medical information had been evaluated. In practice it would appear once again that the Panel sensibly decided the evidence to uphold the appeal was so strong there was no point in following correct procedures in this case.

Astonishingly, the Appeal Panel formally considered that the Local Authority's complete failure to have the medical evidence considered, was down to the school and so could be ignored, being satisfied that the decision to refuse a place on home to school distance was correct. Presumably knowing the outcome they decided not cause waves! Interestingly, a few years ago the rules stated that the home to school distance was measured by the nearest safe walking distance, but the word 'safe' has now been removed!

Following procedure, the Panel was then required to decide whether the strength of the parental case was stronger or weaker than the prejudice to education of other children in the school, in order for a decision to be made. 

However, they redeemed themselves by unusually deciding there was no prejudice at all, so did not need to come to a view on the strength of the case, and a place was offered. I spoke with grandfather on the phone shortly after the Hearing, and he was still shell-shocked by the combative experience he had endured.

I repeat the message I began with, that this type of experience is rare, and most families I have talked with over the years whilst naturally finding an appeal stressful, report back that win or lose they have had a fair hearing with a Panel determined to see fair play and put them at their ease, and a Presenting Officer with a similar approach. 

Footnote:
The Ombudsman's Report on the 2007 Hearing referred to above was about an Appeal case with ten families complaining over what amounted to an abusive experience at the hands of a KCC Appeal Panel for Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Faversham. To quote The Times: "A leading grammar school has been found guilty of maladministration and injustice for the rude and aggressive way its review panel rejected appeals from ten families trying to get their children into the school. Instead of focusing their hearings on the academic ability of the children, members of the panel for Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham, Kent, targeted the parents with a barrage of inappropriate questions about their lifestyles".
 
The whole report,  a horror story that was an indictment of virtually every aspect of the appeal, concluded: "Governors cannot take it for granted, without proper enquiry, that the appeals service which they commission will be fit for purpose". It is an unhappy consequence of these proceedings that, whilst QEGS acted swiftly to secure an Appeal Panel Administrator who has provided them with high quality panellists ever since, the original team were allowed to continue in their role for years following. The one positive aspect of the whole story was that I worked closely with the Headteacher at the time to help rectify the injustice, for she was very distressed about the treatment of parents at the appeals and wanted justice for them revealing a very human, caring and wholly supportive side to her nature. A complete opposite to some of the more abusive allegations levelled at present in her current role as Headteacher of Simon Langton Girls' Grammar. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 August 2016 23:10

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