Decision Maker: Director of Corporate Services
Decision status: Recommendations Approved
Is Key decision?: No
Is subject to call in?: No
To approve arrangements for the consideration
of School Admission Appeals by ‘Virtual’ Panels
primarily by considering written representations only as submitted
by Appellants and Admission Authorities. The situation to be
constantly monitored and reviewed as and when COVID restrictions on
social distancing and community interaction are amended by Central
Independent Appeal Panels follow a 2 stage process for consideration of School Admission Appeals – Stage 1 (The Admission Authority case) and Stage 2 (The Appellants case). The procedure involves parties (Admission Authorities and Appellants) attending the Panel for specific sections of the hearing and Panel members and Clerk ONLY participating in decision making at each stage.
Social distancing requirements mean that face to face hearings cannot take place. Department for Education Guidance states that where face to face hearings cannot take place they should be conducted by telephone or video conference and where this is not possible appeals conducted entirely on the basis of written submissions are acceptable.
NB All options would require a Clerk to be located in SP1 with support available to set up and, where necessary, operate the technology in order to ensure that the Clerk is free to focus on their core role of supporting, advising and recording the Panels proceedings.
For all the below we considered the on line systems/Apps/ Social media options available taking account of the general public’s familiarity with those systems and the extent to which their level of security and confidentiality they provided. We were of the view that general social media options were too ‘open’ (Specifically Zoom is not supported by SCC due to security issues).
Skype proved unsuitable as it didn’t provide sufficient control over 3rd party access/egress.
Our conclusion was that TEAMS was the only SCC supported system which met requirements in terms of management and security.
We ran a trial of TEAMS with volunteer Panel members and Clerk taking part as the ‘core’ meeting and role played 3rd parties (Appellants and Admission Authority) being ‘dialled in. The feedback from participants has been included in the analysis below:
Option 1- Virtual Panel meeting with ‘live’ involvement by parties.
Video/audio conferencing – This was dependent on the quality and reliability of WiFi access for participants. For the duration of their trial one Panel member experienced repeated failed attempts to connect on line (after being given additional support/training on the previous day).
We looked at the possibility of making IT equipment available for parties to access in SP1 (drop in facility)as a more ‘reliable’ option.. This was not practical given – SP1 closed to public access/location too far for majority of Staffordshire parents and Admission Authority Representatives/Use of SCC IT equipment (if security and information governance issues could be satisfactorily addressed) would need assistance – raising social distancing issues.
We looked at ‘dialling in’ parties for an Audio Hearing. The logistics would prevent our practice of ‘Group ‘ hearings at stage 1. The alternative/necessary process of Hearing each individual appeal in full (ie stage 1 and stage 2 ) meant that ,in practice, each Hearing would have to be arranged as a ‘mini meeting’. It would considerably lengthen the time needed for each Panel and would require the members to hear repeated presentations of the same information by the Admission Authority.
From the parties’ point of view – being ‘dialled in’ would mean that they were speaking/listening to faceless voices, which, in itself, isn’t inclusive.
All options carry with them risks re security/confidentiality of system.
Cost implications as calls to parties would be at a premium rate.(These costs may be outweighed by savings on venues etc)
For Panel members – lengthier meetings would have an effect on their well being eg we cannot be sure that their home work station arrangements comply with DSE standards. In addition we have to acknowledge that our volunteers are only willing/able to devote a certain percentage of their time to this important task.
Option 2 – Virtual Panel of members and Clerk ONLY – All appeals to be considered on basis of written submissions from both parties
Technology would be used by 3 Panel members and 1 Clerk only thus limiting the potential number /frequency of WiFi connection issues.
Paper copies of all submissions and Questions/ Answers subsequently lodged would provided to all parties.
Panel members would be better able to focus on the information before them rather than become embroiled in frustrations and complications regarding WiFi links etc. All parties would have equal opportunity to present their information.
It was suggested that a written only approach might disadvantage appellants who struggle to express themselves in writing. Conversely it was suggested that written submission only might benefit appellants who are less confident at public speaking.
To address any potential disadvantage Appellants would be offered assistance in compiling a written submission on request and, in line with SCC policy, appropriate support offered to ensure compliance with Equality Act 2010 – if requested.
Practical Considerations/Risks for all options:
Extent of Panel members’ familiarity with the technology is use – whilst we are providing training on the TEAMS system as a matter of urgency, Panel members will effectively work ‘alone’ during a Hearing.
Practical limits on number of participants who could be dialled in to TEAMS at one time.
The semi rural nature of Staffordshire and the consequent variation in quality and reliability of wifi services.
Support Officer to manage IT system /process – Would need to be an approved Observer for ALL meetings
Equality Act 2010 implications – addressed above.
Anticipated need to schedule more, but shorter. Panel meetings – in recognition of additional concentration required when interaction isn’t face to face.
Overall effect on well being of panel members if required to participate in lengthy meetings from their own work stations which are not DSE complaint. Impractical to provide DSE complaint facilities in each volunteers home.
Panel members withdrawing from pool as the appeals season progresses.
To deliver a fair and transparent Appeal Service the system adopted has to be robust and of a consistent, reliable quality.
Other Local Authorities
We have been in regular contact with a number of local authorities. The issues/potential problems are common to all and therefore from the evidence available to us there was no justification for adopting any option other than the one we consider is most suited to SCC circumstances and findings of our Trial.
We have therefore determined our conclusions on the basis of risk to the delivery of a fair, transparent and credible Appeals Service, and reputational risk to SCC.
The implementation of a virtual Appeal Hearing process involving Panel members and Clerk meeting ‘virtually’ to consider appeals on the basis of written information only.
Processes to be put in place to facilitate the exchange of Questions/Answers between all parties.
Arrangements to be constantly reviewed as and when COVID 19 related restrictions on social distancing and community interaction are amended.
Publication date: 11/05/2020
Date of decision: 24/04/2020