Telford council within rights to change catchment area boundaries, says ombudsman
A family lost school transport funding for their daughter when catchment area boundaries were re-drawn, but a watchdog says the council were within their rights to make the change.
A Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman ruling says Telford and Wrekin Council weren’t legally required to subsidise transport to a grammar school in the first place, and a newly-built academy is closer to the family’s home.
The mother, known as “Mrs X” in the report, said her daughter’s “ability and aptitude” meant the selective school, not the academy, was the nearest suitable school.
But, in a report backing the local authority, the LGO investigator writes: “Although Mrs X feels the grammar school is the most suitable for her daughter, it does not mean the academy school is unsuitable.”
Summarising the case, the report says Mrs X lives in a village near two grammar schools. Some of her children already attend one of them, and Mrs X’s daughter was due to start there “imminently”.
“Historically, the village Mrs X lives in was within the catchment area of a local authority secondary school which was more than three miles away,” the report says.
“This meant the council had a duty to fund transport to school arrangements for children attending there from the village.
“The council says it decided, as a discretionary arrangement, to extend that funding to the two grammar schools.
“This was because a child attending a grammar school would otherwise have likely taken a place at the local authority secondary school.”
The council changed its catchment areas in 2018 because of population shifts. The report adds: “The catchment area covering the village Mrs X lives in also had to change because a new academy school had opened.
“This new school became its designated secondary school and, as it is less than three miles away, the council no longer had to pay for transport arrangements.”
The council told the LGO it decided to remove the “reciprocal arrangement” to fund transport to the grammar schools from September 2019, but agreed to phase in the change by only applying it to new pupils, including Mrs X’s daughter.
The investigator notes that the LGO cannot reverse a council policy change “simply because some people object to it”, but would instead have to find fault in the process that led to it, or conclude that it broke the law.
“I cannot say that is the case here,” the report says.
“The council ran a completely discretionary scheme to fund transport to school for pupils at two grammar schools. This complimented its main policy on funding transport to school, which properly reflects the law and the DfE’s statutory guidance.”
When the change came, it adds, Telford and Wrekin Council “took steps to avoid impacting on those already receiving the funding by phasing in the change over several years” and kept prospective pupils’ parents fully informed.