At the outset, it is important that academies and maintained schools are familiar with the DfE's Best Practice Guidance for dealing with complaints. The law relating to complaints handling differs because academies are obliged to implement the requirements of the Independent School Standards Regulations, while maintained schools must implement section 29 (1) of the Education Act 2002. Please see guidance for academies as well as guidance for maintained schools.
We delivered a webinar on 24 January on this topic. Below is a summary of some of the points covered:
All expressions of concern and complaints should, wherever possible, be approached with a view to achieving a realistic resolution. Complaints need to be carefully reviewed so that headings of complaints can be identified.
At the outset it is important to identify and establish roles – is a separate investigator and decision maker required?
You should also consider whether specific terms of reference are required because properly drafted, they can ensure the processes run more smoothly.
This requires careful consideration of the information that will need to be gathered from both sides' perspective. A chronology is a good way to marshal the facts and can be amended as more information surfaces. It is good practice also to meet with the complainant to understand their perspective and details of their complaints.
This needs to be clear and detailed and confirm if a complaint is upheld or not and the grounds and reasons explaining why it is so. The letter can also include some recommendations and will need to make reference to the next stage in the complaints procedure if the complainant remains dissatisfied.
Where reasonably possible, the time limits in the complaints policy will need to be followed. If this is not possible, the delay should be for the shortest time possible. Those sitting on the complaints panel must not have had any involvement with the complainant and the relevant matters. There are different requirements for the composition of the Panel for maintained schools and academies (please see links to the Best Practice Guidance above). An appropriately redacted bundle of documents will need to be circulated to the Panel and the parties a number of school days in advance of the Hearing.
It is extremely useful to have an agreed running order for the Hearing which the panel and the parties are aware of in advance. The panel will need to appoint a chair and they should have the skills required to run a fair and orderly hearing. The Clerk will need to keep careful minutes as they will need to be made available on request.
The panel's decision with detailed reasons will need to be explained in a detailed decision letter. The timing of that should comply with the procedure. If this is not possible, the complainant should be informed of the reason for the delay and the revised date. It may be necessary to take legal advice and to speak to the insurer before concluding decisions so as to be clear on liability in circumstances when complaints are substantiated.
Whether complaints are upheld or not, there is often something that a school or academy could do differently in the future. This can be a positive demonstration that will make the complainant feel that they have been taken seriously, and it can also improve the way things are done.
Once all of the stages are concluded, if the complainant insists on corresponding on the same issues, then they can be deemed to be serial and persistent and they can be informed that there will be no further engagement on the same issues (see Best Practice Guidance above for more information).
Sometimes, complaints may develop into claims through Tribunals and the Courts, hence the importance of handling complaints well and maintaining good records throughout the process.
Finally, it is important for Governors and Proprietors to conduct regular reviews of complaints and the outcomes. Are there recurring themes that need to be addressed? Likewise, are there recommendations and practical steps that need to be taken at school / trust level to improve practices for the future?
We have created a Complaints Administration Pack, containing all the template letters, terms of reference, advice notes and pro forma forms that schools and academies need to complete their formal complaints procedures from start to finish. VWV retainer subscription clients receive a 10% discount off the price of this product. Our lawyers are also able to advise on complaints so that you have support every step of the way.