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This is the wording of the new non-statutory guidance (departmental advice) for maintained schools from the DfE, published on 6th January 2016, available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-complaints-procedures
(NB For academies, there is a different set of guidance, which was last updated in January 2015.
“Academies and free schools are required to have complaints procedures meeting certain requirements by the Education (Independent School Standards) (England) Regulations 2014 and to make the procedure available to parents of pupils and parents of prospective pupils.”
The guidance is provided to support academies and free schools in drawing up and administering a compliant complaints procedure is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/setting-up-an-academies-complaints-procedure .)
Departmental advice for maintained schools, maintained nursery schools and local authorities – issued January 2016
This is departmental advice from the Department for Education. This advice is non-statutory, and has been produced to help governing bodies understand their obligations and duties in relation to Section 29 of the Education Act 2002.
Expiry or review date: This advice replaces the School Complaints Toolkit 2014. It will be reviewed before January 2018 subject to any relevant changes in legislation.
This guidance is for:
In accordance with Section 29 of the Education Act 2002, all local authority (LA) maintained schools must have and make available a procedure to deal with all complaints relating to their school and to any community facilities or services that the school provides.
The Department for Education has produced this non-statutory guidance to share best practice and help schools avoid common pitfalls. It is for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies in all LA maintained schools and maintained nursery schools, LAs and Dioceses. It is not designed for use by academies, free schools or independent schools.
There is a difference between ‘legal requirement’ and ‘good practice’. In this guidance, we use ‘must’ where a school has a duty. We use ‘can’ where a school has a power (not a duty) under statutory or common law. We use ‘should’ for advice on good practice.
The difference between a concern and a complaint
A ‘concern’ may be defined as ‘an expression of worry or doubt over an issue considered to be important for which reassurances are sought’. A complaint may be generally defined as ‘an expression of dissatisfaction however made, about actions taken or a lack of action’.
It is in everyone’s interest that complaints are resolved at the earliest possible stage. Many issues can be resolved informally, without the need to invoke formal procedures. Schools should take informal concerns seriously and make every effort to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.
There are occasions when complainants would like to raise their concerns formally. In those cases, the school’s formal procedure should be invoked through the stages outlined within their procedure.
Any person, including members of the general public, may make a complaint about any provision of facilities or services that a school provides, unless separate statutory procedures apply (such as exclusions or admissions). Schools must not limit complaints to parents or carers of children that are registered at the school.
The following tips and suggestions are intended to help schools ensure their complaints procedures are robust and effective:
Schools should also ensure the complaints procedure:
Complaints need to be considered and resolved as quickly, and efficiently as possible:
Schools are free to choose how many stages their procedure will include – two or three formal school-based stages are likely to be sufficient for most schools.
Regardless of how many stages the school chooses, or whether or not the complaint is ‘justified’, a dissatisfied complainant must always be given the opportunity to complete the complaints procedure in full.
Schools must ensure that they comply with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. It is common practice to ask for complaints to be made by using a complaint form or in writing, however the complainant may have communication preferences due to disability or learning difficulties and schools must allow alternative methods of contact:
Governing Body Review
Responsibility for reviewing the procedure may be delegated to a committee of the governing body, an individual governor or the headteacher. If projected review dates are published on the policy document they should be adhered to. Failure to do so could constitute a failure to adhere to a policy.
Complaints not in scope of the procedure
A complaints procedure should cover all complaints about any provision of facilities or services that a school provides with the exceptions listed below, for which there are separate (statutory) procedures.
Exceptions: Admissions to schools, Statutory assessments of Special Educational Needs(SEN), School re-organisation proposals, Matters likely to require a Child Protection Investigation
Who to contact: Concerns should be raised direct with local authorities (LA). For school admissions, it will depend on who is the admission authority (either the school or the LA). Complaints about admission appeals for maintained schools are dealt with by the Local Government Ombudsman.
Exception: Exclusion of children from school
Who to contact: Further information about raising concerns about exclusion can be found at: www.gov.uk/school-discipline-exclusions/exclusions.
Who to contact: Schools have an internal whistleblowing procedure for their employees and voluntary staff. Other concerns can be raised direct with Ofsted by telephone on: 0300 123 3155, via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to: WBHL, Ofsted, Piccadilly Gate Store Street Manchester M1 2WD.
The Department for Education is also a prescribed body for whistleblowing in education.
Exception: Staff grievances and disciplinary procedures
Who to contact: These matters will invoke the school’s internal grievance procedures. Complainants will not be informed of the outcome of any investigation.
Exception: Complaints about services provided by other providers who may use school premises or facilities.
Who to contact: Providers should have their own complaints procedure to deal with complaints about service. They should be contacted direct.
Serial and Persistent Complainants
Schools should do their best to be helpful to people who contact them with a complaint or concern or a request for information. However, in cases where a school is contacted repeatedly by an individual making the same points, or who asks them to reconsider their position, schools will need to act appropriately.
There will be occasions when, despite all stages of the complaint procedure having been followed, the complainant remains dissatisfied. It is important for schools to recognise when they really have done everything they can in response to a complaint. It is a poor use of schools’ time and resources to reply to repeated letters, emails or telephone calls making substantially the same points. If a complainant tries to re-open the same issue, the Chair of Governors can inform them that the procedure has been completed and that the matter is now closed.
If the complainant contacts the school again on the same issue, then the correspondence may be viewed as ‘serial’ or ‘persistent’ and the school may choose not to respond. However, schools must be careful that they do not mark a complaint as ‘serial’ before the complainant has completed the procedure.
Note: The Department for Education does not itself use the term ‘vexatious’ when dealing with serial or persistent correspondents as it could potentially be inflammatory. However, it is a recognised term. In the context of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the Upper Tribunal concluded that ‘vexatious’ could be defined as the ‘…manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of a formal procedure.’ An exemption therefore exists in Section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. However, this exemption can only be applied to requests themselves, and not the individuals who submit them.
More information about dealing with vexatious requests for information is available on the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website.
Under no circumstances should an individual be marked as serial for exercising their democratic right to refer their complaint to their local MP regardless of which stage the complaint has reached. The application of a ‘serial or persistent’ marking should be against the subject or complaint itself rather than the complainant.
Is it time to stop responding?
The decision to stop responding should never be taken lightly. A school needs to be able to say yes to all of the following:
The case is stronger if the school agrees with one or more of these statements:
Schools should not stop responding just because an individual is difficult to deal with or asks complex questions. In most circumstances the subject matter is what you can refuse to respond to, not the correspondent.
Schools must provide parents with the information they are entitled to under The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005.
However, where an individual’s behaviour is causing a significant level of disruption schools may wish to implement a tailored communications strategy such as restricting them to a single point of contact via an email address or by limiting the number of times they make contact; e.g. a fixed number of contacts per term.
Complainants have a right to have any new complaint heard and failure to respond at all to a complainant could mean that the school is failing to comply with its legal obligations. A school needs to ensure that they are acting reasonably and that any genuine complaint can still be heard.
If school staff find it difficult to deal direct with a complainant because of their unreasonable behaviour and other strategies are not working, they may be able to approach the governor services team at their LA to ask for assistance. If this is agreed, complainants can be advised not to contact the school, but to communicate instead with the LA who will co-ordinate any response.
Complainants who may have been restricted in their communications with the school can also be advised to ask a third party to act on their behalf, such as the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Ultimately, if a complainant persists to the point that the school considers it to constitute harassment, legal advice should be sought as to the next steps. In some cases, injunctions and other court orders have been issued to complainants because of their behaviours.
Different procedures apply to FOI and Data Protection (DP) correspondence. You should talk to your FOI/DP advisor contact about those or approach the ICO for further advice.
Once a school has decided that it is appropriate to stop responding, they will need to let the complainant know; ideally, through a hard copy letter but an email will suffice.
Sample Policy for Unreasonable Complainants
<…School> is committed to dealing with all complaints fairly and impartially, and to providing a high quality service to those who complain. We will not normally limit the contact complainants have with the school. However, we do not expect our staff to tolerate unacceptable behaviour and will take action to protect staff from that behaviour, including that which is abusive, offensive or threatening.
<…School> defines unreasonable complainants as ‘those who, because of the frequency or nature of their contacts with the school, hinder our consideration of their or other people’s complaints’.
A complaint may be regarded as unreasonable when the person making the complaint:-
A complaint may also be considered unreasonable if the person making the complaint does so either face-to-face, by telephone or in writing or electronically:-
Complainants should limit the numbers of communications with a school while a complaint is being progressed. It is not helpful if repeated correspondence is sent (either by letter, phone, email or text) as it could delay the outcome being reached.
Whenever possible, the headteacher or Chair of Governors will discuss any concerns with the complainant informally before applying an ‘unreasonable’ marking.
If the behaviour continues the headteacher will write to the complainant explaining that their behaviour is unreasonable and asking them to change it. For complainants who excessively contact <…School> causing a significant level of disruption, we may specify methods of communication and limit the number of contacts in a communication plan. This will usually be reviewed after 6 months.
In response to any serious incident of aggression or violence, the concerns and actions taken will be put in writing immediately and the police informed. This may include banning an individual from <…School>.
Barring from the School Premises
Although fulfilling a public function, schools are private places. The public has no automatic right of entry. Schools will therefore act to ensure they remain a safe place for pupils, staff and other members of their community.
If a parent’s behaviour is a cause for concern, a school can ask him/her to leave school premises. In serious cases, the headteacher or the local authority can notify them in writing that their implied licence to be on school premises has been temporarily revoked subject to any representations that the parent may wish to make. Schools should always give the parent the opportunity to formally express their views on the decision to bar in writing.
The decision to bar should then be reviewed, taking into account any representations made by the parent,and either confirmed or lifted. If the decision is confirmed the parent should be notified in writing, explaining how long the bar will be in place.
Anyone wishing to complain about being barred can do so, by letter or email, to the headteacher or Chair of Governors. However, complaints about barring cannot be escalated to the Department for Education. Once the school’s own complaints procedure has been completed, the only remaining avenue of appeal is through the Courts; independent legal advice must therefore be sought.
The Role of the School Complaints Unit
If a complaint has completed the local procedures and the complainant remains dissatisfied, they have the right to refer their complaint to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has a duty to consider all complaints raised but will only intervene where the governing body has acted unlawfully or unreasonably and where it is expedient or practical to do so.
The School Complaints Unit (SCU) considers complaints relating to LA maintained schools in England on behalf of the Secretary of State. The SCU will look at whether the complaints policy and any other relevant statutory policies were adhered to. The SCU also looks at whether statutory policies adhere to education legislation. However, the SCU will not normally re-investigate the substance of the complaint. This remains the responsibility of schools.
The SCU will not overturn a school’s decision about a complaint except in exceptional circumstances where it is clear the school has acted unlawfully or unreasonably. If the SCU finds that the school has not handled a complaint in accordance with its procedure, we may request that the complaint is looked at again.
If legislative or policy breaches are found, the SCU will report them to the school and the complainant, and where necessary, ask for corrective action to be taken. The SCU normally also seeks written assurances as to future conduct. Failure to carry out remedial actions or provide written assurances could ultimately result in a formal Direction being issued by the Secretary of State in accordance with her powers under sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996.
Schools may wish to contact the SCU for advice on whether they have acted reasonably; for example: in closing down a complaint from a serial complainant before the local procedure has been completed. However, the SCU will not be able to advise on how to resolve the complaint.
Further information can be obtained from the SCU by calling the National Helpline on 0370 000 2288 or going online at: www.education.gov.uk/help/contactus or by writing to:
Department for Education
School Complaints Unit
2nd Floor, Piccadilly Gate, Store Street, Manchester M1 2WD
Appendix – Roles and Responsibilities
The complainant or person who makes the complaint will receive a more effective response to the complaint if he/she:-
The Complaints Co-ordinator (or headteacher)
The complaints co-ordinator should:-
o sharing third party information;
The Investigator is the person involved in Stages 1 and 2 of the procedure. The Investigator’s role can include:-
o consideration of records and other relevant information;
o analysing information;
The person investigating the complaint should make sure that they:
The Panel Clerk (this could be Clerk to the Governors or the Complaints Coordinator)
The Clerk is the contact point for the complainant for the panel meeting and is expected to:-
The Panel Chair
The Panel Chair has a key role in ensuring that:-
Panellists will need to be aware that:-
Interviewing Best Practice Tips
Useful Resources and External Organisations
Other Relevant Departmental Advice and Statutory Guidance
Other Departmental Resources
Published: 09/06/2016, by Sam Henson
Last Updated: 09/06/2016, by Sam Henson