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Managing complaints about schools

There’s now greater opportunity than ever for parents, carers and guardians to voice any concerns they have relating to their child’s education and for their concerns to be heard and to be taken seriously.

While most staff are aware of their legal duties relating to academy and school complaints procedures, many are reporting a significant increase in the workload generated by the volume and complexity of parental complaints they receive.

Handling complaints about schools with the appropriate due diligence can generate a substantial overhead. This is all too often exacerbated when Ofsted or a local authority are involved, or on escalation to the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).

We recognise the challenges complaints about schools and trusts poses and we’re frequently asked to advise and help to successfully resolve complex school complaints. We want to do more to reduce the number of complaints about schools that reach that stage and to help reduce the impact this can have on school capacity.

For further information download our Complaints Management support brochure.

Frequently asked questions

Complaints about members of staff may invoke the complaints procedure and the staff disciplinary process.

Your complaints policy should indicate how these kinds of complaints from parents will be handled. Our Model Complaints Procedure states that:

“Certain complaints about staff may need to be dealt with under the school’s internal disciplinary procedures, if appropriate. Complainants will not be informed of any disciplinary action taken against a staff member as a result of a complaint. However, the complainant will be notified that the matter is being addressed.”

The appropriate policy to follow will depend on a range of factors, including the nature of the complaint and whether it includes alleged breaches of school policies by a member of staff, or amounts to an allegation of potential misconduct in accordance with the school’s disciplinary rules.

It may be that some initial fact-finding is needed before deciding under which process to look at the complaint. If you are in doubt about which process to follow, you should seek legal and/or HR advice.

Remember that complaints about staff which raise pupil safeguarding concerns must be dealt with appropriately under the school’s safeguarding procedures and allegations procedures, and in line with the DfE’s Keeping children safe in education guidance.

Complaints about the school’s provision and support for pupils with special educational needs (SEN) are increasingly common and require consideration of compliance with the law on SEN, including the SEND Code of Practice, the Children and Families Act 2014 and the school’s policies and procedures for supporting pupils with SEN. Some (but not all) pupils with SEN will also be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010 (see below).

The school’s SENCO will be a valuable contributor to the complaint investigation process. However, where the complaint relates to the SENCO or the complaint is particularly complex, you may wish to take legal advice before responding.

Where complaints about SEN are not resolved, parents may seek redress in the SEND Tribunal. In view of this, it is particularly important that you keep detailed records of the complaint investigation, including conversations and input sought, both internal and external, and look for opportunities to resolve the concerns where this is possible.

In our experience, face-to-face meetings are more effective at resolving complaints than protracted exchanges of emails or letters.

It is unlawful to discriminate against anyone because of or in connection with a ‘protected characteristic’, which includes age; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership; being pregnant or on maternity leave; disability; race; nationality; ethnic or national origin; religion or belief; sex or sexual orientation. There are also additional obligations to make reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantage for people with disabilities.

Common complaints of this nature include complaints about the school’s uniform policy, or the application of the school’s behaviour policy to children with particular SEN needs.

As with complaints about SEN, complaints which relate to discrimination should be taken seriously and handled carefully, and you should consider taking legal advice. You will need to refer to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Technical Guidance for Schools in England (which has recently been updated) and the DfE guidance on the Equality Act 2010: advice for school leaders, school staff, governing bodies and local authorities.

Escalation of discrimination issues is a particular risk for schools, resulting in potentially time-consuming and expensive litigation in the County Court or SEND Tribunal as well as highly negative reputational impact.

You will want to ensure that you are acting in line with your policies and procedures, such as those regarding uniform and religious observation. You should also consider whether these policies could be considered discriminatory.

We can assist with a review of school policies in this context, or you may like to consider adopting our model policies and procedures which have been designed with these requirements in mind.

Complaints about bullying may involve multiple school policies and procedures, including complaints, anti-bullying, behaviour and safeguarding. The starting point is to review each of these to gain clarity on what steps the school has committed to undertaking. It will worsen the complaint if the school fails to follow its own processes and procedures in relation to allegations of this nature.

Allegations of bullying should always be taken seriously and should involve an investigation into the allegations made. Some investigations will be straightforward, involving a discussion with the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator, and resolved quickly.

Others will be more complex, particularly where they involve multiple alleged perpetrators, bullying of a sexual nature, or allegations of bullying outside of school, such as on social media. In some cases, the matter may have already been reported to the police by the alleged victim’s parents.

In complex situations, it is easy to overlook the complaints process. As with any complaint, it is important to acknowledge receipt of the complaint, keep the complainant updated on the progress of the investigation, and give clear timelines for responding to the complaint. In our experience, inadequate communication with the complainant is a common reason why complaints are escalated.

Top tips for common scenarios

Victoria Hatton and Tamara Dasht share some top tips for common parental complaint scenarios.

Watch the video

Key resources


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Our expertise

A vexatious complaint

The CEO of a multi academy trust asked for advice regarding a parent raising multiple complaints, insisting each be investigated and responded to separately. We advised on whether the school could refuse any further complaints from this parent under the terms of their vexatious complaints policy.

A problem parent

A school shared concerns regarding a complaining parent, whose manner towards staff was rude and abrupt. The parent’s conduct was not acceptable so we advised on how they should inform the parent, record evidence and set out the steps that could be taken if the behaviour continued.

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