The DfE’s ‘Best practice guidance for school complaints procedures 2019’ was updated in January 2019 and provides guidance on setting up and reviewing complaints procedures – this guidance was updated again in March 2019.
This article outlines the key additions to the guidance in both the January and March 2019 updates.
Establishing a complaints procedure
The DfE has clarified that responsibility for establishing procedures for handling complaints lies with the governing board. The board must have regard to any guidance from the Secretary of State (SoS) when establishing and publishing its complaints procedures – this does not mean that schools must adhere to every detail in the DfE’s guidance. Schools can adopt best practice recommendations by using guidance from the SoS and DfE and apply alternative procedures if they have good reason to. Should a school choose to use a model policy, it should be adapted to suit the school’s individual needs.
Publishing a complaints procedure
Maintained schools are required to publish their complaints procedures on their websites – this does not apply to community or foundation special schools that are established in hospitals, or maintained nursery schools. Schools that do not have their own websites must find another platform on which to publish their procedure, e.g. through the LA’s website.
For federation schools, the governing board is responsible for creating a suitable complaints procedure and ensuring that each school in the federation publishes the procedure on their website. A federation complaint must not be published only on the federation’s website unless member schools do not have websites of their own.
Where a school deems it necessary or reasonable to deviate from its published complaints procedure (this includes not doing something that the procedure states the school will, should or may do), this deviation should be documented. If a complaint is about any deviation from the published policy and is escalated to the DfE for consideration, the school will be asked for an explanation. If the explanation is deemed unreasonable, or the deviation is not justified, the school might be asked to revisit the complaint and comply with its published complaints procedure.
Though the decision still lies with schools, the DfE now recommends implementing a complaints procedure that consists of two stages. The second stage should be an appeal stage, which is heard by members of the governing board who will consider the complaint – this ensures that decisions are not taken in isolation and there is always a method for decisions to be considered independently.
The DfE does not recommend that the second stage only considers the handling of the complaint at earlier stages. When considering school complaints, the DfE will also review a school’s handling of a complaint – schools should be mindful of this when establishing their complaints procedures.
The headteacher or whole governing board
The guidance confirms that a school’s complaints procedure must also outline the steps to follow if the subject of the complaint is the entire governing board. When a complaint is made against the whole governing board, they need to be made aware of the allegations made against them and respond to any independent investigation.
Complaints against the headteacher should be dealt with by a suitably skilled member of the governing board at stage 1 of the complaints process, then by a committee of members of the governing board at stage 2.
Once complaints have been made to the clerk to the governing board, the clerk should arrange for the complaint to be heard. The complaint can be heard by a suitably skilled and impartial member of the governing board at stage 1, then by a committee of members of the governing board at stage 2. Any complaints against the entire board, or that involve the chair and vice chair, should also be sent to the clerk, who can determine the best course of action depending on the nature of the complaint.
The document clarifies that a complaints coordinator can provide administrative support in place of a clerk (if this is more suitable to the school’s needs), but governance and regulatory advice should be sought from a clerk.
The DfE recommends that complaints against school staff are dealt with by the headteacher at stage 1, then by a committee of members of the governing board at stage 2.
Complaints about the content of the national curriculum should be sent to the DfE. If the complaint is regarding the delivery of the curriculum, schools should resolve this through their own complaints procedure. Parents can withdraw their child from any aspects of RE – if parents are not satisfied with the handling of a request to withdraw their child from RE, they should be advised to follow the school’s complaints procedure.
Complaints should be directed to the LA, the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, or other relevant body.
Managing serial or persistent complaints
Schools should establish a policy for managing serial and unreasonable complaints – this should be included in the published complaints procedure.
Where a decision to enforce a bar on an individual due to poor behaviour has been confirmed, the individual will be notified in writing, explaining how long the bar will be in place and when the decision will be reviewed.
Handling complaints fairly
Complainants must be treated fairly and offered a chance to state their case at each stage of the procedure. Schools must act in a way that is not biased when making decisions – the appearance of bias may be sufficient to taint a decision even if there is not actual bias. If a complainant believes there is likely to be bias in the proceedings, and wishes to request an independent complaints committee, they should provide the school with evidence of bias in support of their request. If the appearance of bias is sufficient to taint the decision reaches, it is recommended that schools grant such requests.
All meetings and reviews must be fair – persons who have a conflict of interest should not take part in the complaints process. If there is any reasonable doubt as to a person’s ability to act impartially, they should withdraw from considering the complaint. Where a governor has a financial interest in any related matter, they should also withdraw.
The document explains that schools can become the focus of a campaign and, therefore, receive large volumes of complaints – these can be based on the same subject or come from complainants that are not connected to the school. The DfE recommends that schools include a separate procedure in their complaints policy to handle such complaints – this must be published with any complaints procedure published on a school’s website. The separate procedure could include sending a template response to all complainants, or publishing a single response on the school’s website.
It is recommended that complainants and schools attempt informal resolution before a formal complaint is made, where appropriate. If the complainant wishes to raise a formal complaint, schools should not attempt to prevent this by insisting on informal resolution first.
This section explains that where a complaint progresses to a committee of members of the school governors, it is recommended that neither the complainant or the school brings legal representation. These committees are not a form of legal proceedings and the aim of the governors committee should be reconciliation and to put things right if they have gone wrong. The DfE does, however, recognise that there will be occasions where legal representation may be appropriate.
Including a mediation stage in a complaints procedure can be useful in helping schools and complainants to reach an agreement and move forward; however, there may be occasions where this is not an appropriate course of action.
Mediation should not be used as a substitute for an investigation during the formal stages of a complaints procedure. If neither the school or the complainant considers that mediation will serve any practical purpose at this point, the complainant should be allowed to move on to the next investigative stage of the complaints procedure.
Complying with the GDPR
Before disclosing information regarding a complaint to a third party, schools must obtain written consent from the complainant. Notes of meetings and telephone calls should be kept securely and encrypted, where possible, to prevent any later challenge or disagreement over what was said.
Consent must be obtained from all involved parties before conversations or meetings are recorded. As data controllers, schools have the discretion to decide whether to allow complainants to record meetings if this is not already required as part of a reasonable adjustment. As there may be various levels of identifiable personal information recorded, it is recommended that schools consider how this could affect any third parties called to act as witnesses, and the impact on all those involved in the complaint should the recordings be lost or leaked.
Audio and video evidence
The DfE may accept independently notarised transcriptions of recordings and may ask for the written consent of all recorded parties. Schools will be supported should they choose to refuse to accept recordings of conversations that were obtained without the informed consent of all parties being recorded as evidence.
Governing boards have a responsibility to decide how long they keep records for but should have due regard to statutory regulations and the GDPR when doing so. All personal data should only be kept for as long as is necessary for the immediate purpose of processing.
When a pupil changes school, their educational record will be transferred to the new school and no copies are retained. Schools can, however, consider retaining records of complaints separate to their pupil records, while a complaint is ongoing, so that access to them can be maintained.
Communicating the outcome
Schools should inform the complainant of the conclusion and reasons for any decisions in writing and any further rights of appeal. Copies of minutes should be issues to the complainant, as failure to do so could lead to further complaint.
The guidance clarifies that when responding to a complaint, schools should advise the complainant of any escalation options at each stage of the procedure, e.g. when communicating the outcome of the stage 1 process, the details of the stage 2 process should be included.
March 2019 updates
The DfE updated their complaints guidance again in March 2019 with new information about how to manage duplicate complaints and the use of independent governors.
After a complaint has been through the full complaints procedure, a school may receive a duplicate complaint from the complainant’s spouse, partner, grandparent or child. If the complaint is about the same subject, the school should tell the new complainant that the complaint has already been considered and the local process is complete – they should be directed to the DfE if they are dissatisfied with how the school dealt with the original complaint.
Schools should make sure any new aspects of the complaint are not overlooked – these should be investigated in line with the complaints procedure.
Independent complaints panels
Governing boards of maintained schools do not need to enter into, or already be in, a formal arrangement under the School Governance (Collaboration) (England) Regulations 2003 to appoint a governor from another school onto a complaints panel.
If panel meetings are arranged on an ad-hoc, informal basis, schools only need to source governors who are suitably skilled and that can demonstrate their independence. Governors from any category of governor or associate members of another governing board can be approached.
Maintained schools can ask governors in academies to serve on a complaints panel and vice versa, apart from when a maintained school wishes to appoint a standing committee to hear all the complaints they receive under the committee’s tenure. In these cases, the school must enter into a formal collaborative agreement with another maintained school.
- To read the DfE’s ‘Best practice guidance for school complaints procedures 2019’ in full, click here.
- TheSchoolBus has a number of resources that can help you develop and maintain an effective complaints procedure – we have collated them into this resource pack.
DfE (2019) ‘Best practice guidance for school complaints procedures 2019’, <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-complaints-procedures/best-practice-advice-for-school-complaints-procedures-2019> [Accessed: 1 April 2019]