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Tuesday, 17 March 2020 15:11

School Appeals and Coronavirus

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This is the first of five articles (so far) exploring the effects of Coronavirus on School Admission Appeals with particular focus on Kent and Medway as the situation has clarified. The most recent, dated 5th May, is here

Update: 5th April: Government statement and further analysis here

II have recently given an interview to BBC SE on the subject of GCSE and A Level, in which I found my self saying for the first time that this is one of those rare occasions when we must put the needs of the nation against the welfare and life chances of the individual. We will need to accept (much easier when you have no personal stake) that whatever decision is reached there will be great unfairness and damage to life chances of too many young people.

There is an urgent need to resolve potential and pressing problems brought about by the Coronavirus, relating to school admission appeals .  Although this is not high up the priorities in the great scheme of things, it is of great consequence for many thousands of families across the country whose children have been offered schools they consider unsuitable and who fear their children's life chances will be seriously damaged as a consequence. Last year there were 3,153 secondary admission appeals in Kent and Medway, of which 855 were successful. Arrangements for appeals in 2020 are already being drawn up by many schools. 

I look below at five options for managing the changed circumstances, but the only piece of advice I can give for parents at present is to carry on as far as possible to prepare for an appeal happening, although I do not see how any form of appeal can take place unless there is considerable change in the regulations. There is also the additional problem caused by the likelihood of schools closing in the near future, which will deprive many families of their support and the opportunity to collect documentation and other evidence to support appeals. 

I have now learned (see comment below) that KCC has approached the Department for Education, requesting Emergency Legislation to enable Appeals to take place . This could involve a paper based appeals process, as in Option Two below. Apparently their hand has been forced because up to 90% of current panellists may be excluded through being in one of the at risk categories - I suspect a high proportion are over 70  years old! 

The current regulations require there to be for each appeal:  a Panel of at least three independent panellists: a clerk to the appeal: and normally a Presenting Officer from the school or Admission Authority (see Appendix below): together with representatives of the child, usually including one or both parents. One of the problems that will beset the current arrangements is that all panellists are volunteers, and many if not most are at least 70 years old who should not be taking part in such a gathering.

It may well be that there are further possible ways forward apart from the five options I consider below. Please let me know so that I can incorporate them into this article.

Option One
This is for the Appeal Administrator to try and muddle through under the current arrangements. This includes trying to find Panels of three members to sit together, which may prove impossible given the age profile of the panellists. So, can regulations change to allow two or one panellists to make the decision? Current regulations require there to be at least one educationalist and one lay member on the Panel. Unfair, but so are all the other options below, and the Department for Education would need to make a decision to vary the regulations. An alternative to a face to face appeal would be to Video Conference it. However, the logistics of delivering this for 77 different panels for 77 secondary schools in a short period of time as happens in Kent and Medway would, I think, be an impossible challenge. Primary school appeals arrive shortly on the heels of those for secondary schools but, given the very low success rate of around 1%, there would be far less injustice in cancelling these altogether.
Option Two
To make it a paper only exercise. This has many major drawbacks, including those of discriminating against families less able to cope with assembling a case in writing.  Panels can and do draw out the cases of such families in a face to face appeal. in ways parents may not have realised. Panels are also required to explore the strength of an argument, and a paper exercise does not provide the opportunity to challenge a case (I have seen too many that fly in the face of evidence). This process would strongly favour those families with the resources to prepare a well argued written case, and in a paper exercise this would become much more powerful. Many families would normally go to appeal supported by their headteacher, who is able to provide important detail when questioned, an opportunity to explore the case that would also be lost. In my opinion some panels are already too cosy with the school and, without independent witness, this would make it much too easy to rubber stamp decisions. If this route were chosen, it could be helped along by Panel Administrators sending out questionnaires to families in advance to try and establish relevant facts in their physical absence (many appellants simply don't know what if anything to include). The update above, suggests this may be KCC's preferred option. Looking at the alternatives it could be the least worst of the five options. 
Option Three
To delay appeals until the Virus has run its course. This could run into the next school year, so that pupils would start at the school to which they have been allocated and then transfer if the appeal is successful. This would cause major disruption, especially in districts where there are large numbers of successful appeals. For example in Maidstone there were 189 successful appeals last year, which would see that number of children being pulled out of less popular schools.  This problem is increased massively by the churning effect, which occurs when a successful appeal frees up a place elsewhere in an oversubscribed school that in normal times sees many children move up their preference list to a preferred school.
Option Four 
Cancel the whole Appeal Process with all children going to the schools to which they have originally been allocated. I fear this may become the default option. For secondary places beginning in September 2020, Kent and Medway Local Authorities have allocated over a thousand children to schools they never applied for. Too many of these are horror stories as far as the families are concerned, already in despair about a wholly unsuitable school being offered and having nowhere else to turn apart from trying an appeal. Others will turn to one of the two main alternatives. Those who can afford it will buy a private school place, often at a cost approaching £100,000. For that price some of these will be good value, others being a wholly unsuitable fit. So disadvantaged families come off worst again. I can think of several parts of Kent, illustrated in previous articles, where large numbers of children have unsuccessfully tried to avoid specific schools.
An alternative in this case is for some other families to Home Educate where no suitable school is offered. Again this is a two edged sword, on the positive side with many families having the wherewithal to make this a success, In the hinterland of one less popular school in Kent, at least 150 families have already banded together to support each other. However, for too many others it is a challenge too far, especially with KCC trying to carry out its statutory duty to persuade those children back to a school  (any school) if they haven’t got the resources to Home Educate effectively.
Option Five (only applicable to some academies)
The Appendix below makes clear that some Academies who use Appeal Panels independent of KCC are quite prepared to flout the regulations. In such a climate, I can quite see some academies ignoring any new rules brought in to manage the problems outlined above and simply apply any of my other options,  or invent their own procedures to suit their needs. 
I know I will be asked which of these  four main options I would support. Frankly, I consider all are unworkable but I have no alternative satisfactory solution, although accepting there may be one I have not considered. The purpose of this article is to highlight an issue that has, as far as I am aware, seen no public discussion although it is almost upon us. Having worked over the past fifteen years (now retired) with families in this situation, both professionally and on a voluntary basis,  I am aware of the enormous stress the appeal process places on them. For some this can last over a period of more than six months and, even knowing the nature of the appeal ahead of them, can take an enormous toll on the family. There does now need to be urgent decision making and clarification even with an unsuitable outcome, so that at least families know what is coming.
Appendix: Failures in Current School Appeals Procedures, and other matters
Kent County Council, in its Annual Report to the Schools Adjudicator for 2018-19 is scathing in its criticisms of the appeals procedures or lack thereof for some academies. Its inability to take action underlines my assumption that some academies will simply go their own way with regard to appeals, with little fear of consequences. The author wrote:

There is a growing problem where own admission authority schools and in particular newly formed academies are failing to adhere to the requirements of the School Admissions Appeals Code. Parents seeking places are often refused admission without being advised of their right of appeal. Furthermore, we have evidence of schools who have formed their own appeals panel from their governors and have considered admission without setting up an independent process. Funding agreements need to underpin the duties on these schools and make clear the requirements on governors to act in accordance with the law and expect fines or funding to be withheld where they do not....Time and time again it has been demonstrated that for a small number of schools, their senior leadership cannot be trusted to act in accordance with the code nor sadly to put the interest of children at the forefront of their thinking....The Admissions Appeals Process has no independent oversight, other than through the Ombudsman, most families will not know if a school is in breach of its duties nor if it has a properly constituted panel or arrangements. 

For those interested in such matters the Report also highlights some individual schools that KCC considers failing in its duties to individual pupils, looking at: Appeal Procedures (I have removed the remainder of this paragraph, following credible allegations that this section of the article could have been biased). 

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