Michael Segal explains why a clear school complaints procedure is vital
QUESTION: How often should we review our complaints procedure and associated staff training?
Yearly, at least. In R(M) v The Commissioner for Local Administration in England  ELR 42,the parents of a child complained that one of the teachers at his infant school was singling him out for adverse attention, calling him obnoxious. When told that the child might have ADHD, it was claimed, the teacher said he was an idiot and he would be treated as such. This, if proved, would have been very serious misconduct. The head teacher investigated, and said she found no substance in the allegation. The parents decided not to take the matter further, because by then the conduct complained of had ceased, and the child was happy at school.
Three years later
But at junior school, three years later, the events at infant school appeared to take effect. The parents decided, despite the delay, to complain by letter to the governors, saying that the child had suffered lasting and severe damage. They asked that the teacher’s conduct be investigated. The question arose of whether the complaint should be dealt with under the LA's Raising Concerns procedure, or under the school's complaints procedure. The governors referred the matter back to the head teacher, who treated it as a fresh complaint. She repeated her earlier response, saying that there was no substance to the allegation.
The local authority
The parents should then have gone to the governors, because the head had treated this as a fresh complaint. But, apparently discouraged by the head teacher's reaction, they complained to the local authority.
The parents, after speaking to the child’s therapist, who was to question him in the presence of the investigating officer, formed the impression that the investigating officer had decided in advance that the complaint was without merit and did not want to investigate further. Their suspicions were confirmed when the director of education wrote to them stating that the teacher had an unblemished record, that there were no witnesses, and no evidence to support the allegations.
The parents thought the investigating officer had been unfair, had not entered the investigation with an open mind, had failed to interview possible witnesses, and had disabled herself from reaching a proper conclusion.
The parents complained about the investigating officer to the local ombudsman. The ombudsman can investigate complaints about maladministration by a local authority — but may not investigate conduct, curriculum, internal organisation, management or discipline of a school.
The ombudsman decided that the parents' complaint related to conduct and discipline, and that he could not deal with it.
The parents then applied to the High Court for judicial review of the ombudsman’s decision. The judge found that the ombudsman was correct in saying that he had no jurisdiction over this complaint.
So parents have no recourse to the ombudsman over any complaint about school matters
It is all the more important, therefore, that the school (and the local authority) should have a straightforward, written complaints procedure. It should make clear to the head teacher what s/he should do if there is a complaint; and to the parents what they should do if their complaint is dismissed. There should be a simple two-tier system: complain first to the head teacher under the school's procedure, and then, if dissatisfied, to the local authority under its procedure.
Good practice points
In this case the head’s investigation seems to have been cursory and superficial. If she had carried out a systematic enquiry, interviewed the child, teacher and witnesses, making notes of what they said, and reported the result by letter to the parents, the parents might have been satisfied, and not renewed their complaint. As it was, they were left with a sense of grievance. The three-year delay made it hard for the head to re-investigate, but her approach was still somewhat cavalier. The uncertainty about whether the complaint should have been dealt with under the LA’s or the school's complaints procedure added to the confusion, which clear and understood procedures would have avoided.
Michael Segal is a district judge in the family division of the High Court
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