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Sunday, 05 April 2020 13:00

School Appeals and Coronavirus: Part 2

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Update 16th April: I have now published a further item on this theme picking up the latest government guidance here

 I am pleased to report that government has now released an initial statement on how appeals should be organised this summer, looking at three different approaches to setting up arrangements. If there is a choice it will be the most appropriate for each school’s individual needs, but  I believe most Kent and Medway schools will opt for decisions to be made on the basis of written evidence submitted by families and the school itself. Further, it appears to me that this option can already be made legitimate with a few tweaks as explained below, according to the government’s own School Admission Appeals Code.

I look at the government statement and its implications below.

The success of the scheme in this unique year will depend even more on the volunteer panellists who will still be needed to make it work, and so arrangements to suit them, as well as parents, are critical. It remains possible, if there are insufficient volunteers, that some appeals will not take place until September if at all.

Further details are promised soon, so it is good to see that most cases are likely to be heard this school year. Currently, appeals have to be heard by June 15th but government is looking to extend this deadline.

Request
If you receive information about an appeal you have made to a Kent or Medway school, please let me know so that I can see what is happening and update this article. Whilst I no longer comment on individual cases, I may also be able to advise you on the process. 

I have written a previous article on this theme, setting out a wider perspective than that now indicated by the government statement.The statement reads:

Given the current Covid-19 restrictions we do not consider it sensible to go ahead with admission appeal panels.  We are working urgently on emergency regulations and guidance to establish alternative arrangements which are suitable but also flexible.  We are looking to put in place enough flexibility for admissions authorities to hold panels via telephone or video conference or in writing.  We are also reviewing whether we can extend the current timescales associated with admission appeals.  We do want to continue to ensure that appeal panels are heard fairly so we will not be changing the requirements on clerking.

 
Alternative Approaches
The central point is that 'We are looking to put in place enough flexibility for admissions authorities to hold panels via telephone or video conference or in writing' as explored below. In terms of selecting an appropriate approach it is important to realise that Kent and Medway are atypical Local Authorities with their high proportion of grammar schools. The majority of these will attract large numbers of appeals each requiring relevant evidence to be analysed, which can be very time consuming. This tilts the argument in favour of the written hearing locally, whereas other areas of the country may choose another approach. It therefore remains important that the final government decision allows all three methods. 

The key difficulty in all cases is the fact of schools being closed . This may mean that many families will not be able to get headteacher letters of support, or other evidence, which form critical factors in all grammar school and many other cases. Their absence would seriously damage the conduct of any appeal, making it impossible to come to a fair decision.

Written hearing (I am sure a better and official title will emerge soon).
The key words in the statement are ‘suitable but also flexible’ and ‘fairly’ for any new arrangements, with details of how these are to be achieved still being worked out. One of the key advantages of a system based on written evidence is that it should enable the panels of volunteers to work more effectively than with the alternatives of telephone or video conference, although these may work for smaller numbers of appellants. I look at these in more detail at the foot of this article.
 
Legitimacy
The School Admissions Appeals Code states at Para 2.15 that: Admission authorities must ensure that appeal hearings are held in private, and are conducted in the presence of all panel members and parties. One party must not be left alone with the panel in the absence of the other. Where one party is unable to or has failed to attend the clerk must remain with the panel and remaining party at all times.  

The first two sentences of this paragraph set out a fundamental rule of fairness which would rule out a written hearing. However, the caveat of sentence three opens the door wide to the current legitimacy of an appeal hearing being conducted in a single room or more probably remotely, the clerk ever present, with the appeal panel and possibly the Admission Authority’s Presenting Officer. However, a remote hearing (see below) would require a wide emergency change in regulations. One further tweak would be to allow the Panel to contact the appellants to chase up any missing evidence, or else to send out an enquiry to them in advance of the hearing, either setting out guidelines as to the evidence looked for by the panel (particularly important in the case of grammar school appeals), or else requesting specific information.

Letter of Appeal
Whilst most families will have sent in their appeals by now, they may need to consider whether they should provide extra evidence, not being able to make their case in person. For the letter of appeal and the evidence to support the case become even more critical in these circumstances. This should include the child’s most recent School Report and a letter of support from the headteacher, if this is still obtainable.

You will find advice on letters of appeal here for grammar schools and here for non-selectives, which may serve as a check on what has already been submitted.

For grammar school appeals, the key is evidence of grammar school ability, although it is increasingly difficult to get hold of this with school closures. I can’t see most appeals beginning before mid-May this year, so parents may be able to persuade the school to produce something more by then even though they are closed. If possible, a pattern of Test and other assessment performance at the school should also be provided (evidence from private tutors will tend to work against you) to support the case. If there are specific reasons for underperformance then evidence of these should also be provided.

My advice page on appealing for non-selective schools describes no clear strategy as panels at individual schools are looking for different things, often guided by the school case, so look closely at this when it arrives. Parents should remember that the letter and any follow ups are all the panel will probably see of the case, so make sure the pointers I have quoted in my article are picked up at a minimum.

The Hearing
This section is speculative at present, until further details are available. Currently, even though their schools are closed headteachers have many other pressing priorities so sorting out new appeal arrangements is just another of them (I cannot even visualise the enormous challenges facing heads as they try and plan for an uncertain future). It is likely therefore that most will choose the simplest option, another reason for expecting most schools to select the written case hearing if it is a possibility.

In this scenario, Panels could collect together and be seated according to social distancing but many potential panellists may not wish to travel. It is therefore more likely that this operation will be carried out remotely, using an appropriate App such as the popular Microsoft Teams and Zoom. There is no indication at present about whether the number of panellists can be reduced to two, which could ease matters.

This all makes the work of the clerk even more important, as a record of proceedings will need to be kept, so that they are open to scrutiny. The correctness of proceedings can then be challenged through the complaints procedure, although this would be moving into totally new territory.

The Hearing: Stage One
One problem with a written exercise is Stage One of any appeal, where the Panel listens to the school case and it and parents are able to ask questions as to why the school is unable to admit more pupils. For this reason, there has to be a school representative present, probably virtually, for this stage. But how do families have the opportunity to challenge it. Written questions?
 
Video Conference and Telephone Hearings
The advantage of both these approaches is that they allow appellants to present their case verbally, to follow the proceedings and also to allow panellists to interact with them and ask questions.

Clearly video conferencing is the nearest possible arrangement to the current procedure, but there are considerable challenges to be sorted out for it to work. There would need to be a video screen capable of showing up to six participants, as the three panellists also need to be kept apart and, as well as the appellants and panel there would be a presenting officer and clerk. However, even if the logistics could be sorted, many appellants would be uncomfortable with the technology and the complexity of proceedings.

Then there is the problem of where, physically, appellants are to be situated. Some, but not all, could take part at home via Skype or Facetime. Others would need to get to a place where they could access the system, but there may well be travel regulations in place prohibiting this. This all presumes that the technology to deliver this is available in every case, probably via one of the new Apps that have sprung up to meet precisely such an arrangement. However, even then, whilst I can see how this would work for Panels hearing a small number of appeals, the logistics of managing such a system with a school like Chatham & Clarendon Grammar and its 130 appeals last year are mind boggling.

Telephone conferencing is similar in many ways, but is obviously far less satisfactory. Many appellants who are not used to such an experience will inevitably feel bombarded by three unseen inquisitors and in a position of isolation and inferiority. In neither of these modes are panellists trained in the different skills required to treat appellants appropriately, and indeed I can think of no one currently with the skills or experience necessary to do so at short notice.

It is therefore my considered view that neither of these options is realistic in most cases.

Conclusion
I therefore anticipate that, even if all three options put forward by government are permitted, the large majority of appeals heard in Kent and Medway would be via proceedings based on written submissions and evidence. Parents preparing appeals should bear this in mind when presenting their case in writing, as this may be the only opportunity available to them.

I don’t think any of the solutions is fair to all, but we live in a different world from that of two months ago. I therefore consider that the written hearing will be the best way possible in the circumstances.  

Read 2322 times Last modified on Monday, 20 April 2020 16:58

3 comments

  • Comment Link Friday, 12 June 2020 08:42 posted by Alex Medhurst

    Dear Peter,
    Do you have any data yet on appeals heard this year and amount upheld in west Kent Grammar schools?
    Many Thanks

  • Comment Link Friday, 17 April 2020 16:24 posted by Nancy

    Hi Peter, if you could advice regarding secondary school places. Applied for 4 schools and all oversubscribed. My kids staying without school.Wrote to admission department, they told me to appeal.Do I have just to lodge an appeal and wait? But it will take time, and maybe will not result place be offered.
    What is the right way to follow.Many thanks. PETER: Visit my school appeals section to the right of this page for advice. You will need to provide reasons for your appeal (there is plenty of advice there) and you can appeal to all four schools. My articles on school allocation and oversubscription further down this page will give you guidance on levels of difficulty in any part of Kent..

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 15 April 2020 15:32 posted by Clare

    Hi, please can I have your thoughts on the timescale of the new appeals process which was updated on 14th April? Do you think the appeal hearings (whichever method they decide) will be in April? PETER: I very much doubt it, Which ever route the Admission Authority decides, is going to take time to work and then notice has to be given, I would be surprised to see anything before mid May

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