Ombudsman wants to intervene over academy admission disputes

LGSCO role does not currently cover academies

LGSCO role does not currently cover academies

The local government ombudsman wants the power to investigate academy admissions and exclusion complaints, claiming that it could boost public trust.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) is an independent investigatory body which acts as the final stage for complaints about council services, including admission and exclusion concerns in maintained schools.

It publishes reports that make recommendations, but it cannot enforce action.

Its powers do not cover academies however, whose trusts are their admission authorities. Any complaints relating to academies are investigated by the Education, Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA).

On Monday, the LGSCO Michael King renewed calls for extended powers. He told MPs at the levelling up committee that independent scrutiny of academies could promote public trust in them.

The LGSCO has been calling for such reforms for over a decade. Two parliamentary committees have asked central government to consider the body’s reach.

Ministers are now working on the schools’ white paper, which aims to provide clarity of roles for the different bodies involved in overseeing areas such as admissions, including local authorities.

Schools Week understands that the LGSCO has met twice with the Department for Education since 2019, but no further progress has been made.

Academies ‘missing out’

King said: “One of the main things I’m committed to in our learning is that you can learn from complaints to improve services. Academies are missing out on that by not being part of that kind of culture.”

An LGSCO report from March upheld a complaint against St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar, a voluntary-aided school in Bromley, south-east London, which found “fault causing injustice” when rejecting a child’s admission to its sixth form.

The ombudsman recommended that the governing body apologise and pay the child £400 to recognise the “avoidable frustration and distress”.

However, Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said it seemed “problematic” to have a local government ombudsman “overriding complaints about schools which sit outside of local authorities”.

This was “particularly as there are already a number of bodies that have oversight”, such as the ESFA, Ofsted and regional school commissioners.

But King claimed that investigations linked with government bodies could be perceived to have “skin in the game”.

He said there was a “misunderstanding” that people believe they will look at complaints through “the lens of local government”.

He added: “[The] process should be available to parents in the same way that it is for almost every other public service in this country.”

‘Strong and intelligent’ regulation needed

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said there needed to be conversations about “strong and intelligent regulation” of the school and trust system.

But she added: “It is not really possible to respond on specific points of regulation outside of a regulatory strategy.”

The LGSCO also wants to give parents and pupils the right to an independent investigation of complaints on any topic not resolved by the school. A 2009 pilot of this run in 14 local authorities found that some schools welcomed the ombudsman’s help to solve “vexatious” complaints by parents.

The body also wants to be able to consider the actions of a school fulfilling an education, health and care plan (EHCP) and complaints about SEND provision within a school if a child does not have a plan.

In its 2019 SEND report, the education select committee said the DfE should “at the earliest opportunity” bring forward legislation to allow the ombudsman to “consider what takes place within a school”.

The DfE said it was considering the proposals and would respond. The spokesperson added that the SEND review, due in the first quarter of this year, was “further looking at improving children’s outcomes”.

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