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Wednesday, 27 June 2018 17:30

Grammar Schools and Waiting Lists (2): also Holcombe Grammar School

Update 4th July: here in blue 

This article looks at the situation where families have gone to appeal for a grammar school place for a child who was initially non-selective, the child has been found of grammar school ability, but then been told by the Independent Appeal Panel that there is no room. In most cases, the family can then ask for the child to be placed on the school waiting list.

After the debacle of the 2018 appeals for places at Holcombe Grammar School (previously Chatham Grammar School) in Medway described previously, the article then considers the ongoing shambles of waiting list mismanagement for places at the school. The cast of this story also includes Medway Council and an Appeal Panel provided by KCC. 

Background
Some years ago, up until 2010/2011, KCC ruled that children found of grammar school ability after an appeal could not be placed on the waiting list of the school they had appealed for, if the school was full. I successfully challenged this ruling several times through complaints with the Local Government Ombudsman, including a case involving Oakwood Park Grammar School which wished to place such boys on their waiting list, and I succeeded in getting this policy overturned. As a result, across Kent such appellants  were subsequently placed on the waiting list if the school was full, as explained in my previous article,  written in 2012.

A further, unsuccessful, complaint to the Ombudsman about the Kent policy was by a parent aggrieved at seeing her child moved down the waiting list as a result of this decision. The Ombudsman’s Report, published in July 2012 clarified the position. In summary: The Council was not at fault in adding to a grammar school waiting list a number of children whose appeals, on the grounds of academic ability, were upheld by the Independent Appeal Panel’. A key section is ‘It is for the Council to decide whether to place a child on the waiting list for the school. It has decided to place on the list all those children who have been found to be of the right level of academic ability, either because they passed the eleven plus test or on appeal. The Appeal Code requires the Panel to decide on academic ability when this is the reason for the appeal. So, in placing more children on the waiting list the Council is taking account of the Appeal Panel’s decisions. The Panel itself does not decide on the waiting list’. The regulations have not changed in principle since then, although they were ‘thinned out in 2012. Although this case was for a Local Authority School, one can replace the word ‘Council’ by ‘Academy’ where appropriate, as the latter becomes the lawful Admission Authority.

Current Situation

There is nothing in the most recent version of the Schools Admission Code and just one reference in the School Admission Appeals Code, the two sets of regulations governing admission and appeals that covers this situation. In the latter document: ‘Appeal panels must not make any decision relating to the placement of a child on a waiting list’ confirms this is an Admission Authority decision and the Appeal Panel does not have any influence on where on a waiting list the child would be placed.

In summary, it is down to the Admission Authority as to whether the school will add pupils found selective by an Appeal Panel to the waiting list or not. In the case of Local Authority schools, the Council is the Admission Authority. In the case of Academy Trusts, Free Schools, Foundation Schools and Voluntary Aided Schools it is the school itself, or the Academy Trust. All Kent grammar schools that use a KCC Appeal Panel follow this principle, as do all other Kent grammar schools I am aware of. The situation in Medway is different, as explained below.

I have been delighted with the number of my Telephone Consultation clients and other families who have told me this year of their success via this route, following the recent re-allocation of places.

Please note that any decision by an Appeal Panel to find a child judged non-selective by the Kent selection process, as being of grammar school ability, is not transferable to any other school. Also, no child should be awarded a place via the waiting list until the number of places offered has fallen back to below the Planned Admission Number (the number of places offered on allocation in March). However, some schools will ignore this stricture and award additional places according to the waiting list criteria. They may not change the order when allocating places. 

Medway Council
Kent County Council delegates all admission and appeal matters that they are not required to retain by statute, to individual schools, a process that generally works very effectively. Medway Council has the opposite point of view and retains as many decision matters as it can. I am unclear whether individual Medway Academies (16 out of 17 secondary schools are academies) have powers to take on such responsibilities, but they may simply be glad not to get involved in the processes. Whatever, this does not appear in the interests of many families who have problems. 
Holcombe Grammar School 
It is first worth noting that nowhere in the following events has the school contacted parents who will have spent eight months of worry and stress about their appeal, and many hours of preparation for it. Is it simply that they do not care for the feelings of these families who sought to join the school?

Holcombe Grammar has been served well for a number of years by an Independent Appeal organisation that operates across a number of grammar and non-selective schools in Kent and Medway. However, for 2018 the organisation withdrew from the school in March, which then engaged another Panel operated by KCC. I have previously expressed my views on the operation of the 2018 appeals process, but this article takes the story on.

Warning: What follows is a long and unbelievably convoluted story. In summary, parents of boys who were found of grammar school ability by the Appeal Panel, but not offered places because the school was full, still do not know (29th June) if they are to be allowed on the waiting list. This follows various differing messages from Medway Council (but nothing from the school which is the Admission Authority). The situation of London boys qualified through the Kent Test, who went to appeal for a place but were unsuccessful, is also unclear; both situations depending on alternative readings of the Council’s own Co-ordinated Scheme for Admissions which the council has misread. The article finishes with fresh information about the apparently misleading Case for the School submitted to the Appeal hearings.

The Admission process to Holcombe Grammar (and Chatham Grammar Girls) is complicated by an alternative qualification for admission is a pass in the Kent Test. The two are counted as of equal importance. Boys who took but have not passed the Kent Test are entitled to apply for admission and then go to appeal. 

To continue: 

Initial Situation, 14th June
The Independent Appeal Panel awarded just four places, following around 65 appeals, and found a number of additional boys of grammar school ability; informing families they should contact the school for boys to be placed on the waiting list. This followed the procedures the Panel was used to in Kent. However, the school, instead of placing the boys on the waiting list, referred them through to Medway Council.
21st June
Medway Council replied to the families concerned in an email which claims that there is no indication in the rules that this is allowable. However, it notes  that it is checking this with Holcombe Grammar and the relevant authorities (unspecified) to see if it can be done.

The email records that 'In accordance to Medway Council’s Co-ordinated Scheme for Secondary Admissions, a child cannot be considered on the waiting list for a Medway grammar school if they have not been assessed as grammar through the Medway Test/Review process'. This is untrue and dishonest. The actual and authorised wording in the 2019 scheme (the one for 2018 appears to have been removed from the Medway Council website!) reads: 'The only exception is that a child cannot be considered on the waiting list for a Medway grammar school if they have not been assessed as selective (grammar)'. The Council appears to have deliberately added in the words 'through the Medway Test/Review process' in its letter to cut out children found of selective ability by an Appeal Panel and also those found selective via the Kent Test, and so such children are eligible to be added to the waiting list, which should be the end of the story. 

However, the letter continues: 'It is our understanding that an independent appeal panel can either decide to uphold or not uphold an admissions appeal however there is no indication in the School Admissions Code (December 2014) or School Admissions Appeals Code (February 2012) that an appeal panel can deem that a child should be placed on the waiting list for a school or has the authority to change their assessment decision'. The Council is of course right that there is no mention of the process of placing such children on the waiting list; however, there is no indication that it is unlawful, so the assumption is not valid. I do not understand the last part of the sentence. The whole point of such a grammar school appeal is to determine if the assessment decision can be changed!
 
Families must now wait whilst Medway Council carries out its investigations, and only then would have the right to complain to the Local Government Ombudsman about Medway Council's handling of the situation. It is the LGO that handles complaints about Local Authorities. Families who wish to complain about the Local Authority's actions need to prove both maladministration and injustice (the technical terms). 
 
In any case, as places arise because boys who have been offered places withdraw (it will happen at Holcombe), it is possible they could now be filled by Out Of County (primarily London) boys who are qualified through the Kent Test but were not offered places initially. However, if this is happening, it would itself be unlawful according to Medway Council’s own interpretation of their Co-ordinated Scheme for Admissions, which states they: ‘cannot be considered on the waiting list for a Medway grammar school if they have not been assessed as grammar through the Medway Test/Review process'! We already know from internet Forums that some of the London waiting list offers have gone to boys who have never visited the school, and in some cases do not even know where it is. These will have been offered via the Kent Test, establishing clear illegal discrimination against local boys whichever way the Council’s co-ordinated scheme is interpreted.
 
26th June
The next action was that the clerk to the Appeal Panel wrote to parents to say that their sons' names would not be added to the waiting list. This suggested that Medway Council had finished its 'investigations' and not bothered to inform parents. The letter offers the explanation that in such circumstances: 'the child's name might reasonably be added to the waiting list' and that 'as the decision rests with Medway Council who are the admission authority, they have taken a different positions (sic) which they are entitled to do, given the information above'. Just three problems with that. The first quote is very different in meaning from the statement in the appeal letter. With regard to the second, Medway Council is not the Admission Authority - Holcombe Grammar as an academy is; and to the best of parents' knowledge, Medway Council has taken no position, it is still investigating.  Or does the clerk to the Appeal Committee already know the outcome of the investigation without the families?
 
29th June
Medway Council wrote again to parents, acknowledging that the Appeal Panel has stated Medway Council has now refused to place the boys concerned on the waiting list. However, it goes on to say that discussions with Holcombe Grammar are still going on to ‘determine whether there is an alternative outcome going forward’! In other words, the letter from the Appeal Clerk was wrong; discussion is still going on! The letter also repeats the false claim that ‘Medway Council’s Co-Ordinated Secondary Admissions Scheme and digital information guide for parents both state - only children assessed as grammar through the Medway Test process can be added to the waiting list for Medway grammar schools. In order to be fair and consistent we must process all applications in accordance to this’. Presumably this fairness and consistency means that no appellants having qualified through the Kent Test but not offered places because the school was full will be offered places off the waiting list, and any already unlawfully offered such places will have them withdrawn! I have now written to Medway Council to try and clarify which version of their Co-ordinated Scheme for Secondary Admissions is the correct one.
 
4th July
Reply from Medway Council declining to tell me which is the correct version of the Co-ordinated Scheme for Secondary Admissions until they have finished their discussions to determine an outcome. Surely it can't be that difficult?
 
FOI Request to Holcombe Grammar School
As I was finishing this article, yet another twist to the story appeared. I had submitted an FOI request to Holcombe Grammar School asking: 
It is unfortunate that Mr Bassam, in the school statement, fails to understand the scoring system of the Medway Test, claiming that a score of 100 is that of the average child, and so a score of under 100 is unacceptable. In fact it is the score of the average Medway child taking the Medway Test, which is very different. Indeed a child with a score under 100 in all three tests, can qualify for Holcombe Grammar School under the Medway Test arrangements. Mr Bassam also falsely claims on this basis that ‘Therefore, students who have not been deemed selective should not be considered for a place at Holcombe Grammar School.’ This is the role of the appeal panel and he therefore denies the role of the appeal panel to come to their own opinion on this matter. Can you please confirm that Mr Bassam or his representative will be correcting these mistakes at each appeal, so the Appeal Panel is not misled?
 
I have just received the response:
Following your FOI request of 31st May, amended on 1st June, the response from the school is below: 
Mr Bassan understands the scoring of the Medway Test very clearly and did not refer to 100 as being the score of an average child.  The Panel asked him for the highest score from a case in each category and the lowest score so that they could make an informed decision of the ability of the child.

However, the reality of this response is that Mr Bassan wrote in the written Case for the School:  'Any score around the 100 mark, (50th percentile) indicates average'. I find it incredible (although this is Holcombe) that someone can prepare such a response without bothering to check what Mr Bassan actually wrote before denying it. Or was it simply they don't care? I think I understand the meaning of the final sentence. The fact that the question does not help to determine the ability of the child without an explanation of the standardisation process adds nothing.

As you might expect, I am taking this further.

Families who wish to complain about the school's actions need to prove both maladministration and injustice to the Education and Skills Funding Agency. However, whilst there are several examples here of possible grounds for complaint, I have to warn that it is very difficult to achieve success. 

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 July 2018 16:46

2 comments

  • Comment Link Monday, 02 July 2018 20:38 posted by Claire Donald

    Can we assume that this confirms neither the Thinking Schools Academy Trust nor Medway Council has integrity? I can see the point for TSAT as demonstrated previously, but Medway Council - 'Serving You' - Serving who? PETER: I have covered too many scandals in these pages but this one takes the biscuit. Sadly of course there are victims but hey ho, who in authority cares about them!

  • Comment Link Monday, 02 July 2018 16:50 posted by Mrs Smith

    I am so angry. We have spent six months thinking about and preparing for our appeal. Our son has spent six months between misery and hope. We had a good appeal, although the Panel appeared all at sea about the Medway Test process. Our son now knows he is of grammar school ability but has no grammar school place. Holcombe Grammar has treated us all with contempt. Medway Council is no better and has failed us and Medway residents for no obvious reason. Perhaps the school can explain to our distraught son why London boys should have a place over him. PETER: Contempt is an appropriate word.

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