Council fined for allowing school to select pupils

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The Independent Online

A London council has become the first in the country to be fined for failing to control a school's "perverse" insistence on interviewing prospective pupils before admission.

Lewisham will have to compensate families whose children were unable to attend the sought-after Prendergast School, even though the council warned the board of governors to change its policy.

In a report, Jerry White, the local government ombudsman, found that Prendergast had flouted a strict national rule that only faith schools can interview potential pupils. "Even when it came to conduct interviews that should never have been held, the school breached its own procedures by asking non-standard questions," Mr White said.

His investigation followed a long-running dispute between the school and officials from the Department for Education and Lewisham council, who insisted prospective pupils should not be interviewed. The department also described as "dubious" the policy of giving a preference to churchgoers in a non-denomination school.

The case arose out of complaints by three sets of parents whose daughters had been refused places at Prendergast.

The all-girls school, which was established by a voluntary group but run by the local authority, is in charge of its own admissions. Last year it had 551 applications for 95 places.

It had argued that interviews were essential because its small site meant a large number of children would be concentrated in a limited area. Its governors insisted that pupils had to be self-disciplined and to thrive on social contact. Interviews were used to question candidates on their hobbies and reading habits and views about school.

The school's determination to continue despite opposition from parents, Lewisham council and Whitehall was "perverse", Mr White said.

He welcomed the fact that the school had abandoned the practice for pupils joining from September 2003 onwards, but said that for admissions this September to be decided on the same flawed basis as in previous years was "profoundly unfortunate".

He admonished the school and the council for failing to ensure interviews were scrapped sooner. In 1998, Lewisham had told the school that its procedures breached the code of admissions. In 1999 the council had considered involving the schools adjudicator, who rules on admissions disputes, but decided not to because officials felt a solution was more likely to be reached through discussion with the school.

Mr White concluded that the council's decision not to refer its complaints to the adjudicator was maladministration and resulted in the three children suffering injustice. He recommended the council pay £250 to each family in compensation and that the school invite the three girls to reapply to join this September. The school and the council have agreed to abide by his decision.