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Ombudsman investigation sees council look again at summer-born children’s school start date requests

Leeds City Council failed to follow guidance on summer-born admissions when deciding when an August-born girl could start school, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The Ombudsman heard the girl’s mother had applied to postpone her daughter’s school start last year because she felt it was not in her best interests.

A panel set up by Leeds City Council considered the mother’s application but applied the wrong test, the Ombudsman found. Instead of deciding whether the girl should join reception or Year 1 in 2021, it looked at whether she should start reception in 2020 or 2021.

The council decided the girl’s needs could be fully met in her chronological year group, and it would not be in her best interests for her to start out of that year group. It said the girl should start reception in September 2020, and if her mother declined, she would need to apply for a Year 1 place in 2021.

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The mother complained to the council and explained why she thought it had not made the right decision. In her letter, she said it was her legal right to make the decision for her daughter to start school in her chosen year, and the council should not have said in its decision letter that the child should start reception in September 2020.

The Ombudsman found that the council did not properly take into account her concerns.

Responding to a draft decision of the complaint, Leeds said although it did not accept that there was fault in the decision that it made, it did recognise that its letter “could be set out more clearly and should not have told the parent when their child ‘should start’ school”.

“That is clearly a parental decision until they reach statutory school age,” the council added. “The council apologises for that inference and will ensure that [its] letters are more clearly set out about the decision that is actually being made.”

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “The key point in this case is that the parent decides when their child starts school, and the council decides in which year group.

“Government guidance states admission authorities must make decisions based on a child’s individual needs and abilities and consider whether these can best be met by them starting school in reception or year one.

“They should also take account of the potential impact of being admitted into year one without first having completed the reception year. In this case, the council did not do this and so we have found fault with its decision-making process.

“I am pleased the council has accepted my recommendations to improve its decision making for other young children in the city.”

After the parents resubmitted their request the next year, the girl was given her place in her chosen school.

Following the investigation, the Ombudsman recommended the council apologise and pay the mother £150 for her time and trouble in bringing the complaint.

Leeds also agreed to review all pending and recent decisions in the last 12 months covering requests from parents of summer-born children for delayed entry to reception, following the watchdog’s findings. It will consider whether those decisions have been properly made, following the School Admissions Code and Government guidance, and remake any decisions that have not done so.

The council will also provide the Ombudsman with a copy of the review and provide training to panel members and relevant council officers on summer-born admissions to ensure the correct decision-making process is followed when considering future applications.

A spokesperson for Leeds said: “This case has highlighted a struggle that parents with summer born children and local authorities face when navigating the current School Admissions Code. Six years ago the government promised that parents of summer born children would be able to choose when their child starts school. The legislation has not been changed to reflect this, and the rules in the School Admissions Code still say that each decision must be made in the best interests of the child.

“This complaint stems from the council making a decision in the best interests of the child, rather than the decision the government guidance calls for. In this case, the parent resubmitted their request the following year which we granted, before the Ombudsman reached their findings."

The spokesperson added: “We want Leeds to be the best city for all children to grow up in, and we are very disappointed that we did not manage this family’s request as well as we should have done. We have reflected on our processes and made changes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Adam Carey

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