Dealing with a complaint effectively can ultimately save time and resources, especially if it is complicated or becomes protracted. Understanding the statutory framework and how to take control of the situation can help. Here we examine both.

Maintained schools are simply required by s29 Education Act 2002 to establish and publicise complaints procedures and to have regard to DfE Guidance here.

For academies, the Independent School Standards regulations require a written complaints policy, setting clear timescales with 3 stages: informal (normally a conversation or meeting); formal (complaint; response to it, in writing); and a panel hearing. The complaints panel must comprise at least three people not directly involved in matters detailed in the complaint. One panel member must be independent of the “management and running of the school”. (NB This is a relatively new requirement and schools should ensure their policy complies.)

Complaints regarding admissions, statutory SEN assessments, matters requiring Child Protection involvement, exclusions, whistleblowing and staff grievances / disciplinaries, all have their own separate appeal / complaint processes and are not considered under the general policy.

The statutory scheme for academies does not cover complaints from ‘non parents:’ for example, parents of former pupils who bring challenges after their children have left. DfE Guidance suggests that academies “make clear” how these will be dealt with. No content is prescribed and academies should consider adopting a less onerous policy, as the ESFA has indicated that, where a separate procedure for non-parents is not specified, the full complaints policy should be followed. Please see our updated Draft complaints policies suitable for SATs and MATs that are available free to retainer clients in the retainer members’ area of our website.

A written record of formal complaints must be kept, including at which stage they were resolved and any actions taken by the school as a result. All paperwork should be retained on a confidential basis, except where the Secretary of State requires inspection.

In practice, complaints can be complex and if not dealt with early can become more so by, for example, requests to have hearings recorded; detailed and time-consuming Subject Access and Freedom of Information Requests; or parents posting their complaints online or involving media organisations; all of which create more or less difficult legal issues.

Often complaints are presented aggressively or unclearly; or are added to during the process. A school can take control by clarifying the complaint first; responding within a reasonable time (not one dictated by the parent); and identifying where behaviour becomes unacceptable.

It may be tempting to ignore complaints or to terminate them once commenced. Ultimately, the ESFA will want to see that an academy has given a parent the complaint process the law requires. Where parents do not attend, panels should still consider the complaint, rather than declare the complaint as withdrawn. Where parents have expressed a desire to attend, a panel should formally consider whether it would be reasonable to adjourn to ensure they can.

With the correct approach and with support as necessary, the long term benefit of engaging with complaints openly does outweigh the short term cost. It is easier to reply transparently to others such as media (stating that a confidential legal process is, or has been, followed which is subject to review by the ESFA) as there will be a documented process.