On 24 April 2020 the School Admissions (England) (Coronavirus) (Appeals Arrangements) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (the ‘2020 Regulations’) came into effect to temporarily amend the School Admissions (Appeals Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2012 until 31 January 2021 (although these have now been formally extended until 30 September 2021).
The main changes made by the 2020 Regulations were that appeal hearings could be heard by telephone or video conference (rather than in person) or could be decided on the basis of written submissions only. There were also amendments made to the statutory timescales for appeals.
The intention behind these temporary amendments was to provide admissions authorities, local authorities and admissions appeal panels with greater flexibility in the handling and management of admissions appeals during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also to provide those appealing admission decisions with appropriate support to avoid them being disadvantaged as a result of any COVID-19 restrictions which were in place.
In March 2021 the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published a review of 123 different complaints received regarding alleged maladministration by Independent Appeal Panels (IAPs) arranged by academy trusts between 1 April 2020 and 31 December 2020.
Although overall the ESFA found that the vast majority IAPs had adhered to the 2020 Regulations and the School Admissions Appeals Code, it did identify some common mistakes made by IPAs in handling admissions appeals.
The most common reasons for complaints made to the ESFA were about:
- the format for holding the appeal in light of the 2020 Regulations;
- the decision letter being unclear on the reason for the decision made; and
- whether the admission arrangements had been applied properly.
In investigating the complaints, the ESFA identified the following common mistakes:
- the quality of decision letters was sometimes poor, contained irrelevant or inaccurate information and were not written in accordance with 2.25 of the School Admissions Appeals Code (which provides that decision letters must contain a summary of relevant factors raised by the parties and considered by the panel, and must also give clear reasons for the panel’s decision);
- paperwork was sometimes not issued to appellants in good time ahead of the appeal hearing, meaning the appellant had little time to prepare for the hearing;
- appeal clerks had sometimes failed to accurately record what took place at the hearing, resulting in decision letters not always reflecting all of the appellant’s points raised;
- it was sometimes unclear what evidence the panel had considered in reaching its decision.
Recommendations for 2021
So as to ensure that appellants receive a fair hearing and to reduce the risks of maladministration, the ESFA has asked that academies ensure that the appointed clerk and panel members:
- are fully trained in admissions law;
- provide clear written information to appellants in good time before the appeal hearing, as set out in Section 2 of the School Admissions Appeals Code;
- check the Office of the Schools Adjudicator website to ensure they are aware of any determinations about unlawful academy admissions arrangements which may impact the hearing;
- fully explain the appeal process at the start of each appeal hearing so that the appellants and panel members are clear on what to expect;
- treat appellants in exactly the same way as representatives of the admissions authority;
- properly understand and address each case on its individual merits;
- take full and legible records of proceedings;
- provide clear, ‘plain English’ decision letters which explain, with reasons, why the appeal has not succeeded and contains a summary of relevant factors that were raised by the parties and considered by the panel. It would also be beneficial to list the evidence that the panel has viewed in making its decision; and
- make clear in their decision letter to appellants that complaints can be made to the ESFA on the basis of maladministration.
As the temporary amendments under the 2020 Regulations will remain in force until at least 30 September 2021, the points highlighted in the ESFA review should be taken into account when academies are arranging admissions appeals this year.
Whilst the ESFA review is aimed at academy IPAs specifically, the failings identified and the recommendations made by the ESFA to address them are also relevant to other admissions authorities. We therefore would recommend that all schools and their admissions teams are aware of the points raised in the review and ensure that the recommendations are drawn to the attention of all independent clerks and panel members to reduce the risk of complaints following an admissions appeal.