I’m going to call you ‘parents’ in this article. But you might be a guardian, or grandparent, or uncle, or even a neighbour or a friend.
In my experience, the more the parents can describe the reality of life for their child – and the consequences they foresee should he or she be condemned to go to another school, or worse still to stay where he or she already is – the more persuasive the case is.
Here are some questions, a few of which might help you make your key points:
Does your child feel in danger, which going to this school would remove? Can you describe an example of when this happened?
Is your child’s health at risk? Physically or mentally? Have you had to take him/her to your GP?
What support does your child receive from friends and family? How would this be affected, depending on which school he or she attends?
What has your child said about the Appeal? Is he or she not sleeping? Not eating? Refusing to go to school? Behaving out of character in any other way?
How do you know that only this school can meet your child’s needs?
If the Panel doesn’t ask this question, then you really should:
What practical difference would it make to the school to let in just one more child?
One huge advantage that your Appeal is likely to have, over the bulk of appeals that happen long before the start of the September term, is that you are in fact only talking about one child. There aren’t half a dozen other worthy children competing with yours on the day – it’s just you.
One more child
So, the night before, here’s what you do: you get out all the paperwork and you read it through. Write notes to yourself on it. If need be, write yourself a Statement, to explain (again) the main arguments of your case, which you can read out if you get tongue-tied. (The school will refer to its notes too, at the hearing, so this is perfectly acceptable.)
Read through the letter from Democratic Services, that describes what happens at the Appeal. Rehearse it in your mind, in as much detail as you can, and always with the outcome that your Appeal is upheld. Go over it as many times as you can stand.
When you need a break, check that you know the route to the Appeal hearing and that you’ve got everything ready for the morning. Make sure the Appeals office number is programmed into your mobile phone for emergency use. Then set your alarm and go to bed.
You’ve done all the homework you can. Tell yourself (and each other) that the rest depends on how the Panel responds to what it sees and hears tomorrow … you can do nothing more tonight.
On the day
Your priority is to stay as calm as possible, so your brain can keep processing everything that goes on and you don’t miss anything. So, leave yourself plenty of time to get there, and eat as much breakfast as you can. Dress to feel comfortable as well as look smart.
Arriving too early won’t be a problem for anyone; in fact it will make the Clerk relaxed to know you are there. If you end up late – and it can happen to anyone! – just ring the Appeals office and give them an idea when you think you can get there.
Recently a head teacher we hadn’t been told to expect arrived while the Panel were in the middle of introducing themselves. As Chairman I smiled, everyone took a few deep breaths while he sat down and opened his papers … and the introductions began again. No problem.
You’ll be greeted outside the hearing-room by the Clerk, who will take you aside, sit down with you, and go through what to expect. Again, it should seem like familiar ground to you, after all that rehearsing last night.
Whoever is representing the school will be waiting elsewhere, ideally in a separate room – but even if you happen to see them, you can afford to relax. They don’t hate you, they won’t judge you, and they’re just there to do their job. In an hour from now, you may find you actually quite like them!
The Clerk will invite you through to meet the Panel. Usually there are three of them, although it might be five. The one in the middle is the Chairman, whom you can address as ‘Chairman’ or ‘Madam Chair’ or – my personal preference – just says: “Excuse me…” and look him or her in the eye.
The Chairman introduces the Panel first, and then the Clerk and whoever is representing the school. (I’ll talk in a separate article about who these people could be, as it can differ depending on whether the school has the County Council as its ‘admission authority’, or it’s an Academy or some other form of school that acts as its own Admission Authority.
The main thing you need to know is that there should be a ‘Presenting Officer’ – either an employee of the County Council, or a school governor. Occasionally the head teacher is also the Presenting Officer.
It doesn’t really matter who they are, as long as you are clear that this person is acting as the Presenting Officer. If you’re not sure about this, from the introductions, ask the Chairman: “Is he/she here to act as the Presenting Officer, or as a witness?”
It is often helpful (but it’s not compulsory) if the school sends a senior member of staff as a ‘witness’ for the first stage of the hearing, which is all about the school. He or she is there purely to answer more detailed questions about the running of the school – but NEVER to ask you any questions or give any other information not directly asked for.
The Chairman should make it clear that this person is a Witness only, and should also give you the opportunity – if you want – to ask for them not to be present when it’s time for you to present your personal case. In my experience it’s always been helpful, because they can talk about things like emergency evacuation times, or how they arrange use of communal stairwells and play areas if the school is overcrowded, or how the school’s anti-bullying policy works in real life. A Presenting Officer wouldn’t normally know that much detail.