Shockingly, the independence of the panel was fatally undermined when panellists failed to complete its decision making and delegated this to the Legal and Democratic Services Department of KCC. The council is criticised for providing the school with a clerk and appeal panel whose conduct of the appeals was riven by maladministration. The Council actually changed decision letters agreed by the panel in some cases and substituted these with others. There were problems with the 11 plus testing in two centres in September 2009 with candidates being given insufficient time for part of the tests. KCC's response was to provide parents with a letter they could present to appeal panels but the Ombudsman considers this was insufficient and recommends that the Council comes up with a procedure for reviewing such incidents, together with a means to enable candidates to be retested where appropriate. Some parents received letters inapplicable to their cases (one was told that their child had been found not to be of grammar school standard, when she had passed the Kent test)). One parent was provided with papers relating to another appellant (not the first time this has happened in my experience).
The Panel was described by someone involved with the hearings as "The Panel from Hell". The chairman threatened to resign at the end of the first morning of the appeals after disagreements between panellists. The clerk had never clerked a grammar school appeal before, had only limited experience from the previous year, and considered she had not been properly trained by KCC. Appeals for an oversubscribed grammar school are the most complex of any. The panel failed to follow the rules for managing such appeals and are described as 'becoming hopelessly muddled in its decision making'. The chair's actions were criticised by both the other two members of the Panel and the clerk on a variety of counts. You will find the full report here. An average of just ten reports is published nationally relating to school appeals, those relating to Kent are here.
The Ombudsman's Press Release reads as follows:
Ombudsman criticises “eccentric and idiosyncratic” handling of admission appeals for Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School
The conduct of admission appeals organised by Kent County Council on behalf of Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School was seriously flawed, finds Local Government Ombudsman, Anne Seex. In her report, issued today, she found that the appeal panel became hopelessly muddled in its decision making. It failed to manage hearings, take account of parents’ needs or record its reasoning.
The Ombudsman said: “The appeal panel’s eccentric and idiosyncratic consideration of the appeals and poor time keeping caused uncertainty for most of the parents who complained to me.”
The School Governors responded swiftly to the Ombudsman’s concerns and offered fresh hearings for six girls whose parents had complained. The Governors will not use the Council to provide a panel and clerk for future appeals. The Ombudsman is satisfied that this was an adequate and appropriate remedy for the injustice, and appreciates the Governors’ positive approach.
The Ombudsman found maladministration by the Council because it had:
- provided the School’s Governors with a clerk and an appeal panel who proved incapable of fulfilling the requirements of the statutory School Admission Appeals Code 2009
- contravened the Code by sending decision letters from its Legal and Democratic Services Section with the facsimile signature of the panel clerk, and
- substituted standard decision letters chosen by its Legal and Democratic Services section for those agreed by the panel.
The Ombudsman found that the panel:
- failed to manage the hearings efficiently or effectively or take account of the needs of parents during the hearings
- failed to adequately record its proceedings, and particularly the advice it obtained during the hearings
- caused one parent offence by the chair’s inappropriate and irrelevant comments about his experience of part of the Middle East
- showed an irrelevant and inappropriate interest in some parents’ private affairs and the chair wasted valuable time in seeking discussions with them after the hearing
- adjourned during one parent’s hearing to seek advice without informing the parent of that advice
- went beyond its role and remit in commenting critically during the same parent’s hearing on the School’s admissions manager going into applicants’ homes, and
- failed to complete its decision making and left it to the Council’s Legal and Democratic Services section.
One parent complained about the way the Council administered the admission tests that her daughter sat as part of the admission arrangements. One of the tests was disrupted and her daughter’s score in that test was significantly lower than in others. This meant that, although she passed the tests, she did not get a place because of the distance between her home and the School. The Ombudsman found that the Council failed to administer the tests properly and had no policy or procedure to deal with the situation. The Council apologised and, as the appeal panel decided to give the daughter a place at the School, the Ombudsman considers this to be an appropriate remedy for the injustice.
The Ombudsman is concerned that the maladministration by the Council identified in this report could recur and cause significant injustice to other parents. She recommends the Council to:
- consult on and introduce a procedure for reviewing incidents or errors affecting selective testing together with a system for retesting
- report on how its test invigilators will be trained and supported to deal efficiently and calmly with untoward events during testing;
- report on how it can ensure that any clerking and appeals service that it provides is effective and complies with statutory requirements, and
- instruct its Legal and Democratic Services Section to ensure that all letters from appeal panels are checked and signed by the clerk of that panel.
I could go on, but readers should read the full report to see the shocking nature of the management and operation of this set of appeals. Information on previous Kent Reports can be found here.
Parents are naturally going to ask if there are lessons to be learned for other appeals this year. I am clear that, in my opinion, KCC Panels have often failed to follow proper procedures for considering appeals for oversubscribed grammar schools and I have a submitted a number of current complaints on this basis. The issue of retesting where invigilators have made mistakes will continue to be a contentious one and I suspect KCC will challenge some of the Ombudsman's recommendations. The situation where KCC Officers completed the decision making for the Appeal Panel is a disgrace and should never happen again. The issue of inadequately equipped or trained clerks is a crucial one and needs to be addressed urgently. Where panellists are not up to the job, they should be weeded out (I am aware of several who should not in my opinion be used again). It is not just a matter of further training of people who are not suited to the role, even where there is a shortage of volunteers. This is too important to children's futures.
Sadly, comments from KCC suggest a complete lack of acceptance of their culpability and accountability in this debacle. It would appear that responsibility is being laid on a single employee of the authority who should never have been put into the position of clerk, and no one is responsible for the greater sins of the organisation. In spite of claims to the contrary, at least two of the panellists continue in that role.
One great sadness for me about this Report and the inevitable publicity it will attract is that the many excellent panellists who give up so much time in conscientious voluntary service to the community will inevitably be discouraged by this Report and the attendant publicity and potential new panellists may be turned away. Without the hard work of the vast majority of panellists, the important work of appeal panels could not function.
In all I had five clients appealing for places at TWGGS last year, with three being successful out of the initial total of eight. I complained to the Ombudsman successfully on behalf of another and supported them to a subsequent successful appeal, to become one of the three additional successes following the Ombudsman complaints, bringing my clients to a total of over a third of all the successful appeals. I considered my final client had a good chance of a successful complaint also, but they had made good alternative arrangements for their daughter and so did not complain. I am delighted that according to reports the 2011 appeals all ran smoothly.
Worryingly, in spite of KCC's protestations that this was a one off case last year and training will have resolved any issues, I am still hearing proper concerns about decisions at other oversubscribed grammar school panels organised by KCC, including most recently Tunbridge Wells Boys, and Oakwood Park.