Making a complaint about your child’s school

Making a school complaint
Who should you approach if you’re unhappy with something that has happened at school, and what if they don’t take you seriously? We explain how to make an official complaint about your child’s school.

From time to time, every parent feels aggrieved about something that has happened at their child’s school, whether it’s an unmarked homework project or a serious bullying incident. Most complaints can be resolved swiftly and easily, but sometimes, you might feel you need to take your concern further.

All schools must have a complaints policy, which sets out their framework for handling complaints. This must be publicised and many schools choose to do this by making the policy available on the school’s website. ‘The decision to take a complaint forwards is always the parent’s, not the school’s,’ says Rani Kaur, advice officer at the National Governors’ Association. ‘If you raise a complaint and feel it hasn’t been resolved, it’s your right to escalate it to the next stage.’

Stage 1: initial concerns

Schools are encouraged to take initial concerns, or informal complaints, seriously, no matter how trivial they seem. This can prevent them from developing into more significant issues. ‘If you have a concern, the first step is always to raise it informally,’ says Rani. ‘This can be done by speaking to your child’s teacher, although some schools have a designated member of staff to deal with complaints.’

For small issues, you might be able to deal with your concern by speaking to the teacher in the playground after school; alternatively, you may want to send in a note, email the teacher or arrange an informal meeting. In all cases, you should try to raise the complaint as promptly as possible.

Taking it further

If you’re not satisfied with the way in which your initial concern is handled, you can raise a formal complaint with the school. Usually, this has three distinct stages, although it will vary between schools:

  • Stage two: complaint heard by head teacher. This should be done in writing, and is likely to involve meeting the head teacher in person to discuss your complaint.
  • Stage three: complaint heard by the chair of governors. If you’re unsatisfied with how the head teacher has handled your complaint, you should write to the chair of governors. They must decide whether your complaint has been dealt with according to the school’s complaints policy.
  • Stage four: complaint heard by the governing body’s complaints appeal panel. If you are still not happy, you can write to the clerk of the governing body, giving details of your complaint and asking for it to be heard by the appeal panel.

At every stage, the person who is handling your complaint should:

  • Establish what has happened so far, and who is involved
  • Clarify what you are complaining about, and why you feel it is unresolved
  • Contact you or meet with you in person if they need to clarify anything about the complaint or collect more information
  • Establish what you would like to happen to resolve the problem
  • Interview anyone involved in the complaint (for example, your child’s teacher) with an open mind
  • Keep notes of every meeting.

There is no official timescale for how long each stage should take, although the school should set out its own schedules in the complaints policy. ‘However, this shouldn’t be restrictive, and schools should be flexible if, for example, you need to complain about an event that you weren’t aware of until some time had passed,’ adds Rani.

The complaints appeal panel

It might sound daunting to think of your complaint going before a panel, but this stage of the process exists to make sure everything is considered afresh, without any bias from people who may have been involved so far. ‘The meeting usually involves you as the complainant, the head teacher, and anyone else involved – which could include children – putting their argument forward,’ explains Rani. ‘The panel, which is usually made up of three or five governors, will then make a decision about how to proceed. It’s not designed to be a scary process, but a chance for everyone to put their side of the story across.’

After the panel, you should be informed of the decision in writing. The school’s complaints coordinator must also be told of the outcome.

Outcomes

There are various possible outcomes when you raise a complaint with your child’s school. These may take place at any stage of the procedure, and it’s up to you to decide whether you’re happy with the response or want to take it further. The outcomes could include:

  • An acknowledgement that your complaint is valid
  • An apology
  • An admission that the school could have handled the situation differently
  • Reassurance that the incident will not happen again
  • An explanation of what has been done to ensure it won’t happen again
  • An agreement to review school policies in respect of the complaint.

It’s good practice for the school to ask you, at each stage, how you feel the problem could be resolved, so think about what you would be satisfied with. For example, are you happy with an apology from the staff member involved? ‘If the complaint relates to improper practice by a specific member of staff, it is up to the head teacher to begin disciplinary proceedings, if necessary, the outcome of which would remain confidential in line with other HR matters,’ adds Rani.

If you’re still not happy…

If your complaint goes to the appeal panel and you’re still not happy with the outcome, you can take things further. ‘Once you’ve exhausted the school’s complaints policy, the next step is to take the issue to the Department for Education,’ explains Rani. If your child is at a maintained school, you should complain directly to the DfE; if it’s an academy or free school, your complaint should be addressed to the Education Funding Agency. In addition, if you have a concern that affects the whole school – such as a management or safeguarding issue – you can complain to Ofsted.

For more information about how to escalate your complaint, visit https://www.gov.uk/complain-about-school. Coram Children’s Legal Centre also offers advice on education matters.