Complaint handling can pose a challenge for schools. In education, handling complaints needs to address the duties, rights and obligations of the parent, pupil, school and/or the local authority/ESFA as the case may be. Complaints should be dealt with efficiently and effectively, in accordance with internal policy, that has been influenced by statutory and best practice guidance.
Cause for complaint
A recent decision of the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), highlights a possible route that a parent can pursue against a local authority and shines a spotlight on the overarching duty that a local authority has to provide alternate education in the context of special education needs (SEN). Generally, SEN and education, health and care plans (EHC plans) are applicable to both maintained and non-maintained schools (excluding independent schools).
The LGO investigates complaints independently and impartially. The service is provided free of charge to the public. The LGO aims to effectively resolve disputes regarding councils and other bodies (within their jurisdiction), by recommending redress that is proportionate, appropriate and reasonable based on all the facts of the complaint. Although the LGO has no legal power (unlike the courts of law) to force councils to follow their recommendations, they generally do.
Mrs X complained that the Essex County Council failed to provide her son with a suitable alternative education after he was excluded from school in 2014.
The complaint highlighted the duty a local authority has to provide ‘suitable education’ under section 19 of the Education Act 1996. Under the Act, ‘suitable education’, in relation to a child or young person, means efficient education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs they may have. Suitable education can take place at school or somewhere else.
The complaint arose out of a difference in understanding between Mrs X and the school. Interestingly, the local authority was involved as a stakeholder at a roundtable conference early on and was aware of facts that affected Mrs X’s son. The duty rested on the school to adequately address the child’s needs.
It was only after the local authority decided that the child should not return to school, following an assessment at a planning meeting, that it had a duty to ensure the child received a suitable alternative education. Upon an analysis of the facts, the planned alternative education put in place by the local authority showed signs of strain and eventually failed, resulting in a finding of ‘fault’ by the LGO.
The LGO subsequently recommended that the local authority:
- apologise to Mrs X for its failings
- pay Mrs X for the benefit of her child’s education for the two terms where it failed to provide adequate education
- pay Mrs X in recognition of the strain placed on her, and for the time and trouble in consistently complaining about her child’s education
- review its procedures to ensure it monitors the suitable alternative education put in place for those out of school