This guidance contains the need-to-know facts found in the DfE’s ‘Best Practice Advice for School Complaints Procedures 2016’, published in January 2016.

The non-statutory document replaces the School Complaints Toolkit 2014 and is intended for use by school leaders, staff and governing bodies in all maintained schools and nurseries.

Under section 29 of the Education Act 2002, maintained schools have a duty to publish a procedure to deal with all complaints relating to the school and any community facilities and services they provide.

This guidance can inform your policy and procedures to ensure that you meet the best practice requirements outlined.

Concerns and complaints


A concern is defined as an expression of worry or doubt over which reassurances are sought. A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, regarding actions taken or a lack thereof.

Any person, including members of the general public, may make a complaint about the provision of a school, unless separate statutory procedures apply (such as exclusions or admissions). Schools must not limit complaints to parents and carers of registered children.

Schools should seek to resolve complaints informally wherever possible. However, once concerns or complaints are formally raised, the school’s complaints procedure must be invoked and adhered to.

Complaints must be taken seriously and every effort should be made to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. 

Best practice tips


The guidance contains the following best practice tips:

  • A distinct complaints policy/procedure must be in place.
  • Any LA procedure adopted must be tailored to the school.
  • Any third party providers should have their own complaints procedures in place.
  • Schools should be aware of the difference between a complaint and concern.
  • Schools should be mindful of the language used in their procedure (i.e. the use of ‘must’ and ‘should’).
  • Where a procedure states a party ‘should’ do something and they choose not to, the school may be asked to provide a written explanation for the reason they deviated from best practice.
  • Complainants should be asked at the earliest stage how they believe the issue could be resolved.
  • The complaints procedure should set out the steps to follow if the headteacher or a member of the governing body is the subject of the complaint.

What does an effective procedure do?


An effective complaints procedure:

  • Is easily accessed and publicised, simple to understand, impartial and non-adversarial.
  • Enables a full and fair investigation.
  • Respects confidentiality and data protection requirements.
  • Addresses all the points at issue and provides an effective response.
  • Provides improvement data for senior leaders.

Complaints need to be resolved as quickly as possible, schools should:

  • Set realistic and reasonable time limits for each action within a stage.
  • Understand that excessive time limits will not be accepted by the DfE.
  • Expect complaints to be made as soon as possible after an incident (three months is considered an acceptable timeframe).
  • Consider exceptions to any stated ‘cut-off’ timeframe.

Your procedure


Schools may choose how many stages comprise their complaints procedure; however, two or three stages are likely to be sufficient. Schools cannot dictate that a complaint can only be escalated if the school permits it.

Regardless of whether a school deems a complaint to be justified, a dissatisfied complainant must always be provided the opportunity to complete the complaints procedure in full.

You may wish to consider an additional stage allowing an independent review by the LA, diocese or an external agency.

Complaints against a headteacher are usually dealt with by the chair of governors. Complaints against the chair or any individual governor should be made in writing to the clerk of the governing body.

Recording complaints


Schools must comply with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. Whilst it is common for complaints to be made using a complaint form or in writing, schools must allow for alternative methods of contact where a complainant has a disability or learning difficulty.

A complaint may be made in person, by telephone or in writing.

To prevent difficulties, brief notes of meetings and telephone calls, alongside any written responses, must be held by the school (recording devices can be utilised where necessary).

The progress of the complaint and the final outcome should be recorded and held centrally.

Complainants have a right to access copies of these records under the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts.

Governing body review


Schools should not share complaints with the whole governing body, except in very general terms, as it could compromise appeal cases.

If the whole governing body is aware of the substance of a case prior to the final stage, an independent panel should be arranged. Schools may wish to approach a local school for help or, alternatively, the LA or diocese.

If a complainant believes there is likely to be bias in the proceedings and requests an independent panel, schools should consider the request but are not obliged to grant it.

The complaints procedure should be reviewed by a committee, individual governor or the headteacher every two to three years, to enable new guidance and legislative changes to be included. Projected review dates should be adhered to or it may constitute a failure to adhere to the policy.

Complaints not dealt with via the procedure


Some complaints fall outside the scope of a complaints procedure. These are shown below alongside their respective channels for escalation.

Exception Relevant channel 
  • Admissions
  • Statutory assessments of special educational needs and disabilities
  • School reorganisation proposals
  • Matters likely to require a child protection investigation
Concerns should be raised with the LA. For admissions, it depends on the admissions authority.
Exclusion of a child Follow DfE advice here
Whistleblowing Internal whistleblowing policy
Staff grievances and disciplinary procedures Internal grievance procedures
Complaints about services provided by third parties The providers' complaints procedures


Serial complainants


Schools should do their best to help those contacting the school with a complaint, concern or information request. However, where a school is contacted repeatedly by any individual concerning the same complaint or concern, despite action being taken or completed, the school must act appropriately to ensure time is not wasted.

It is a poor use of time to reply to repeated letters, emails or phone calls making the same point. If a complainant tries to re-open an issue, the chair of governors should inform them that the procedure has been completed and the matter is now closed.

If, following the chair’s warning, the complainant persists, the school may choose not to respond. Schools are advised to be careful when marking a complaint as ‘serial’.

It is important to remember that it is the subject of the complaint that should be marked as ‘serial’, not the complainant. If the complainant brings a new complaint or concern to the school, communication should resume.

When to stop responding


Before a school stops responding, it should be able to say yes to all of the following:

  • Every reasonable step has been taken to address the complainant’s needs.
  • The complainant has been given a clear statement of the school’s position and their options.
  • The complainant is contacting the school repeatedly to make the same point.

Schools have a stronger case if they can say yes to any of the following:

  • The school believes the individual is contacting them with the intention of causing disruption or inconvenience.
  • The contact is often or always abusive or aggressive.
  • Insulting personal comments are made towards staff.

The school can choose to restrict communication or cease responding altogether. They should communicate this in email or, preferably, hard copy. Alternatively, they can ask the governor services team at their LA to communicate on their behalf. Complainants should be advised that they may ask a third party to communicate on their behalf. If the complaints are believed to constitute harassment, legal advice should be sought. Schools must respond to new complaints.

Barring from public premises


The public has no automatic right of entry to school property. If a parent’s behaviour becomes cause for concern, a school can ask the individual to leave the premises.

In serious cases, the headteacher or LA can notify the individual that their implied licence to be on school premises has been temporarily revoked, subject to any representations the parent wishes to make (schools should always allow the opportunity for parents to express their views on the decision in writing).

The decision to bar should be reviewed, taking into account any representations made, and either confirmed or lifted.

Anyone wishing to complain about being barred can do so by letter or email to the headteacher or chair of governors. These complaints cannot be escalated to the DfE. If a parent wishes to lodge a further appeal, the only remaining avenue is through the courts.

The role of the School Complaints Unit


If a complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome of a completed complaints procedure, they have the right to refer their complaint to the Secretary of State. All complaints will be considered but intervention will only take place where the governing body has acted unreasonably or unlawfully, and where it is expedient or practical to do so.

The role of the School Complaints Unit (SCU) is to consider complaints relating to LA maintained schools in England on behalf of the Secretary of State. They will look at whether the stated complaints procedure was adhered to and whether the school’s statutory policies adhere to education legislation. They will not reinvestigate the complaint and will only overturn a decision in exceptional circumstances.

If legislative or policy breaches are found, the SCU will report them to the school and complainant and ask for corrective action to be taken – seeking reassurance over future conduct.

What’s next?


Read the original document here

You can download our model Complaints Policy, adherent to the latest guidance, here.

Roles and responsibilities concerning complaints can be found on pages 16-18 of the DfE’s guidance document, alongside interview tips and sources of further information.