Councillors unite against school appeals change

Tuesday January 17th 2023


Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Stuart Sommerville

A move by the Scottish Government to take charge of school placing requests has been rejected by councillors from all political parties in West Lothian.

The proposal was branded “a piece of nonsense”, with councillors agreeing it would mean huge costs with little gain.

Members of the Education Executive agreed it would do nothing to relieve the stress of the ‘win or lose’ situation parents face when appealing to change their child’s school,

Placing requests for schools are currently dealt with by local councils, but the Scottish Government has suggested a move to hear requests centrally by Scottish Tribunals, a national department created in 2014 which brings all tribunal services under one umbrella.

The Tribunals (Scotland) Act 2014 envisages that the work of placing in schools appeal committees will transfer to the Scottish Tribunals. The Scottish Government is currently undertaking further consultation with all local authorities on this proposal.

Education officer Andrew Sneddon told a meeting of the Education Executive: “Current arrangements within West Lothian are that Placing in Schools Appeals are heard by a panel of three comprising an elected member of the council or appointed member of the Education Executive, a parent, and a person experienced in education and acquainted with the educational conditions in the area. All members of the panel receive training provided by the Council’s Legal Services. Appeals are usually heard in the Civic Centre.”

He added that the existing system was quick and low cost, and takes account of local circumstances, harnessing the knowledge and experience of relevant local stakeholders.

He added: “Existing appeals rules are consistent with the principle of community empowerment, as they involve local people making decisions within their own communities. They are consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. They contribute to local democracy as they involve local elected members both in decision making and a representative role.”

Appeal hearings last 45 minutes to an hour, the Executive heard. In a typical year there may be around 2,000 placing appeals launched across Scotland with perhaps only 600 actually progressing to a hearing.

Mr Sneddon said the trend in West Lothian had seen a reducing number of appeals because of more places in schools because of the growing schools estate, and more mediation between education officers and parents.

Councillor Andrew Miller for the SNP said: “I think we do well in West Lothian, the system we have is a good one. My question is: rightly or wrongly this is seen by parents as an adversarial process, how do we as a council address the perception of parents that it is adversarial and a decision will be made by the council?”.

Mr Sneddon summed up existing policies by saying “We go out of our way to avoid appeals”. He stressed that education officers would be in touch with parents in an attempt to seek solutions which were acceptable to parents before reaching actual appeal hearings where a decision could be made against the placing request.

Mr Miller replied: “It’s very positive to see that we try very hard to avoid hearings and to resolve the situation before hearings.”

Labour Councillor Danny Logue said that the Scottish Government would have to recruit increasing numbers of staff to hear appeals centrally.

Councillor Logue said: “It’s a piece of nonsense”. He added that he found it unbelievable that the potential costs to the Scottish Government such as paying for parents and education staff travelling to hearings at a centralised place hadn’t been considered.

Councillor Sally Pattle for the Lib Dems echoed this: “I was frankly alarmed at the lack of preparation that has been done to get together the teams in some undecided location. I think this is something that could have a detrimental effect of children locally and nationally.

Council leader, Labour’s Lawrence Fitzpatrick said: “I was absolutely dumbfounded when I learnt of this proposal by the Scottish Government.

He added: “Every applicant finds it stressful, that’s an absolute matter of fact because it is a win or lose situation.”

He added that the existing appeals hearing system works and that he saw the proposal as another example of treating local authorities with disdain, and further centralisation.

Councillor Kirsteen Sullivan said local councils had made substantial progress in engagement and democracy with local communities. She welcomed the unanimity of feeling in the chamber.

Councillor Moira McKee Shemilt for the SNP said perhaps the reason for pushing for centralising was to standardise procedures but agreed “there would be no advantage to pupils in West Lothian.”

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