In March every year, hundreds of thousands of parents across England and Wales will have discovered the school that they have been allocated for their ten year-old who will be moving up to secondary school in September. There will also be many who unfortunately have not received their first preference and indeed there will be others who will have received none of the preferences that parents would have included on their admission application form.
There is, however, an appeal mechanism which allows parents to put their case to a panel who are completely independent from the school or local authority and that appeal panel has the power to allocate places at the school should they feel that the case is exceptional.
Although many parents do go down the appeal route, they completely underestimate the process which is often stressful and complex. Most parents also do not realise that when they get to an appeal, there will either be someone from the local education authority or the school who is a trained professional and will be arguing against them (i.e. an appeal by its very nature is adversarial).
The good news is that there is a wealth of information out there which can enable a parent to put together a rational, reasoned and well evidenced case in respect of their own personal circumstances and also enable them to challenge the case that is against them, which is normally that the school is full up and to admit any further children would have a detrimental effect on the running of the school.
Set out below are some useful initial tips for parents who are embarking upon the appeal process.
Tip 1 – Prepare, prepare and prepare some more!
If as a parent, if you think you are able to knock together a couple of sides of A4 and send this in prior to the appeal hearing, turn up on the day of the hearing and read it out there will only be one outcome – you will lose your appeal!
You should be planning your appeal from the moment you realise that you do not have the school that you were looking for. Start collecting relevant evidence from the school as early as possible and gather everything you can in both relation to both the school that you want and the school that you have not been offered.
The best example that I can give in terms of the level of preparation you should make is to think about how much effort, time and potentially money you put into passing a driving test. Not only is there theory to be learnt, but also practical. If you do not put the hours in behind the wheel, you are almost certain to fail the test.
Winning an appeal, or at least having a good chance at an appeal is very similar. It takes hours of work and research to put together a good case and to be able to argue against the reasons that the school or local education authority are putting forward that a place cannot be offered. Put those hours in and you will put yourself in with a better chance than most.
Tip 2 – Know your rights!
Schools and admission authorities usually ask for parents’ appeal submissions to be with them by a given date well in advance of the appeal hearing. Why is this? Administratively, it is far easier for them if parents’ submissions come in on one day and can then simply be stored until the appeal hearing. It is also advantageous potentially to them if parental submissions are rushed in terms of preparation time. Here is what most people do not know.
The School Admission Appeals Code of Practice 2012 allows a parent to submit information prior to the hearing as long as it is given in a reasonable time frame. Effectively, this means that all you need to do for your appeal form is provide outline reasons of your case and you can then buy yourself the time that will be needed to prepare a much more detailed and well evidenced appeal submission which will put forward your case.
Bear in mind that most schools or local education authorities will ask for appeal forms by the end of March. However, most secondary school appeals will not be until May or June which gives you another 6-8 weeks to prepare your documentation.
At School Appeals Services we tend, after liaising with the admission authority, to submit a detailed parent submission approximately two weeks before the hearing. This allows us to get as much information as possible and to get our submission right before it is submitted.
So, do not follow the crowd and simply put in something relatively hasty and short and then forget about it before the hearing. Take your time and prepare something that is robust, reasoned, rational and well evidenced.
Tip 3 – Provide evidence
Every claim that you make in your appeal submission is just that, a claim without it being evidenced independently. Seek out documentation from appropriate professionals or individuals in relation to the reasons you are putting forward. Remember, this is effectively a legal tribunal you are going to and the laws of evidence and natural justice will apply. It may be that an appeal panel will believe you in terms of your reasoning, but they will definitely believe you if you are able to prove that.
Although not everything can be proved 100%, many things can and it is simply impossible for you to say at an appeal hearing that you can provided evidence at a later date because it will not be accepted. I am astounded at the number of parents who appear before me when I am chairing appeal panels who simply think that just because they say it is true, whether that be in relation to a medical condition, a property issue or something else which is crucial to the case, that they think that I have to believe them. While I might want to believe them, it is a statement of fact that as an appeal panel chairman, I should have before me evidence of that particular claim.
Tip 4 – The school/local education authority case for over-capacity
In the vast majority of appeals, the school or local authority has to convince an appeal panel that it is at its capacity for admissions and cannot take any further pupils over that number. In effect, a school has to prove that to admit further pupils over that number will have a detrimental or prejudicial effect on their resources or manner in which those children are educated. In my experience, 9 out of 10 parents simply accept this as a given which is in my view, a huge mistake. What a parent should do is to try and collect and then put forward at a hearing information which potentially negates the school case.
Bear in mind that just because a headteacher or local education authority say that there will be a detrimental effect, they need to prove it and in the same way that you have to prove your personal case to an appeal panel and provide evidence, the onus is also on the school or local education to do the same. Bear in mind that the appeal is a two-stage process. The panel consider the school or local education authority case and weigh that against your own personal case. If you can weaken or challenge the local education authority case, then the appeal panel are more likely to allow your appeal – it is as simple as that.
Tip 5 – Your behaviour at the hearing
Given my experience of sitting on appeal panels, I am surprised at the defensive and sometimes hostile nature of parents who appear at a hearing. Many people who come before me seem to be angry at the decision not to offer their child a place. Some of those people seem to displace their anger on to the appeal panel. The appeal panel are completely independent of the school or local education authority, so if there is any fault to be attributed, it is certainly not towards the appeal panel.
With any client that I am working with either preparing them for a hearing or attending a hearing with them, I advise them to be charming, respectful and friendly.
The appeal hearing itself which can be anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, is in my view a performance. In that time you will need to get across your case in an assertive but friendly manner. While in theory appeals should be decided on the cold hard facts and the evidence that is put forward by both parties, it is human nature that appeal panels will be influenced by the manner in which an appeal is put across. While I do not say that it is right, it is after having attended over a thousand appeals, I know that nice people win more appeals than angry people.
Remember this in terms of your attitude and behaviour on the day of the hearing.
Tip 6 – Getting the right advice and guidance
Make no mistake that if you are going down the appeal route, you are about to enter a legal process whereby a legal tribunal (the appeal panel) will decide whether your appeal is upheld or dismissed based upon the laws of evidence, the principles of natural justice and the various codes of practice and statutory legislation on the subject. Given this and the importance that most parents place upon their appeal in terms of their son’s or daughter’s lives, I find it surprising that very few parents seek professional help or support in the preparation and conducting of their appeal. I doubt very much whether a parent would conduct their own defence in a court of law or not use a solicitor to when buying a property to conduct searches etc, so why gamble with such an important educational decision by going it alone.
Most admission authorities’ information leads parents to believe that they do not need representation or advice prior to hearings. In some cases I would agree and if there are simply no good reasons with appealing, then whoever assists you is unlikely to secure a win. However, not to find that out I think is often a strange decision on behalf of parents and it has to be said that going to an appeal hearing is not a cosy chat, it can be a difficult and daunting legal process where a parent may be up against an educational professional or headteacher who is highly experienced in that particular field.
So, whether it be the purchase of a book on the subject or a short conversation with an educational consultant or solicitor, it is well worth seeing whether getting the right guidance or representation will help you. As said, sometimes there is no case to be put forward, but in the vast majority of people that I speak to, their cases can be significantly improved by getting the right advice and guidance.
For more information on school admission appeals and the work of School Appeals Services, parents can go to www.schoolappeals.com