To appeal or not to appeal for a school place?

Whether to appeal or accept the decision is a tough choice when children are not offered a place at their top choice of state school. But, as we explain, appeals are not to be entered into lightly.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
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Relocating families are all too aware of the inescapable catch-22 when applying for a place in England’s state-school system. Local authorities will not accept applications until the family has proof of address, so parents are forced to commit to a location without the guarantee of a place at the school of their choice.If the feared rejection letter from the local authority arrives, what should parents do? Shrug their shoulders and accept the decision? Or exercise their right to appeal?“Not being offered a place at your preferred school can be really disappointing,” says Debbie Bowker, managing director of education consultant Bowker Consulting, “especially if the alternative being offered is not one you would have chosen for your child.“There is the option of appealing for a school place, but this can take another six weeks and there is no guarantee of success, so it is best to have a back-up option and to try to avoid going to appeal if possible.”School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsCompetition for places at good state schools is fierce, and, with a rising number of parents missing out on their first choice of primary or secondary school, many are choosing to take on the local authorities and appeal against the decision.But, says Debbie Bowker, there are a few things parents should consider before they reach that point.“Make sure you are living close to the school,” she advises. “This strengthens your arguments for friendship groups outside school.” She also recommends that parents do their research on neighbouring state schools in their chosen location. “Check out availability at nearby schools. Spaces in the year groups you would be appealing for will diminish your chance of success.”

The school admissions process

If parents choose to challenge the decision, the first thing they should do is ensure that they understand the system of admissions for their local authority and preferred school.A local authority is obliged to follow a strict admissions code when allocating school places, and must make this available to parents. If the local authority has failed to follow these criteria, such as precise catchment-area considerations, parents have a strong case against the decision.“For example,” says Debbie Bowker, “There are government limits to class sizes at Key Stage 1 – reception to Year 2 – which means that, unless there has been a mistake made in the allocation process, it is very difficult to win an appeal in this age group.”It is unlikely, therefore, that any rejection will be the result of a local authority’s failure to adhere to the admissions code. The most likely reason will be oversubscription; popular schools quickly reach capacity, and simply do not have space for any more children.The odds seem to be firmly stacked against relocating families, with priority given to children with siblings already at the school, and, in some cases, applications from local ‘feeder’ schools having leverage. But this is not necessarily the end of the line. If parents do their homework and prepare for a battle, it is possible to achieve a successful outcome.
Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
For example, says Ian Jones, of, a barrister specialising in education law, one family he represented returned home after two years overseas to find that there were no places left in their local school.“The children were offered alternative schools in opposite directions, away from their friends and from family transport arrangements,” Mr Jones explains. “The school said it would cause prejudice to accept more children.”However, after obtaining legal advice, the family was able to make a successful case, demonstrating that the school’s arguments did not stack up, and that the children would suffer emotionally if they were not admitted to the school.

'In-year admissions'

In normal circumstances, parents are required to apply for a place at a state primary or secondary school around one whole academic year before the child is due to start (around the age of four to five for primary school and 11 for secondary), but it is unlikely that relocating families will fall neatly in line with that timetable.Applying outside the usual admissions round is called ‘in-year admission’. The government has recently streamlined the process. Parents can now apply direct to the school rather than going through the local authority, and the school must consider the application immediately.It is important to note that schools and local authorities cannot refuse to admit a child simply because a family has applied later than other applicants. If the preferred school has places, the child must be offered one. If the school cannot offer a place, the parents must be given the right of appeal.The local authority will advise parents how, and when, to appeal. If the application has been made outside the normal admissions round, an appeal must be heard within 30 days of being lodged. It is heard by an independent panel of between three and five volunteer members of the public, and a decision is made in private by majority vote.

Tips for successful school appeals

Parents must recognise that an appeal is a serious business, and should be advised to prepare every detail with military precision. Some parents even opt to be represented legally, or by a professional consultant, at the hearing.
Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
Ian Jones offers his top tips for parents faced with an appeal hearing:
  • Read the admissions policy carefully
  • Frame your application in terms of the admissions criteria
  • State why your case is different, not how good the school is
  • Provide clear documentary evidence to back up any claim of strong social/medical need to attend a particular school
  • Ensure all paperwork is sent in good time, and obtain a receipt
  • If you need help, from the school, a local authority or an outside professional, don’t wait until the last minute
A final word of advice from Debbie Bowker. “The key focus of any appeal should be on the emotional and social impact on the child of not attending the preferred school, not the academic performance or Ofsted rating. Your chances of successfully winning an appeal can be very hard to gauge, and guidance from an education consultant can be valuable if you are in this position.”This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.

The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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