How parents can seek redress if they are unhappy about issues at school
Many children with SEN will have their needs met by schools and local authorities without the need to make a formal complaint. If things do go wrong, though, it is very important that parents are able to use informal and formal complaints procedures to remedy the situation as soon as possible.
There are different avenues you can take when making a complaint; it very much depends on what your complaint is about. It can be confusing, so this article outlines the process of making complaints about a school and looks at some of the most common complaints pathways and procedures.
Your local parent partnership service (PPS) will be able to support and advise you through making a complaint. There is a PPS in every local authority and they provide confidential and impartial information, advice and support to parents and carers of children and young people with SEN.
Speak to the school
The first thing to do if you are unhappy with something at school is to speak to your child’s class teacher and/or the school SENCO. There is a SENCO in every school and they are responsible for coordinating provision for children with SEN. If you are still unhappy, you should talk to the headteacher.
If you cannot resolve a problem informally, ask for a copy of the school’s complaints procedure. By law, schools must have a procedure for parents to complain (Section 29 of the Education Act, 2002).
Complaining to the governing body
Every school has a governing body. In the case of an academy, this is known as the academy trust. School complaint procedures usually end with complaining to the governing body of the school. A complaint to the governing body should be addressed to the chair of governors (head of academy trust). If the school is a community or voluntary controlled school, (local authority maintained, run by the council) you could also send a copy of your letter to the director in charge of local education services, often called children’s services.
Try to include precise details of dates, times, meetings and decisions that may help the governing body understand the substance of your complaint. Explain what harm you or your child has suffered as a result of the school’s action or inaction. Say what you would like the governing body to do to put things right.
The governing body is likely to pass your complaint to a panel of governors. They may invite you to a meeting to put your case in more detail. They should follow the rules of natural justice. These say that:
- no member should have a vested interest in the outcome or any involvement in an earlier stage of the procedure
- each side should be given the opportunity to state their case without unreasonable interruption
- written material must have been seen by all parties
- if new issues arise, parties should be given the opportunity to consider and comment on them.
If the governing body does not give you a satisfactory response, you then have a number of options depending on the type of complaint you have. These are detailed below. It is important for all of the routes below that you have followed the school’s and, if applicable, the local authority’s complaints procedures first or that you are able to justify why you have not.
For more information about school governors, visit:
Complaining to the local authority
Local authorities (LAs) no longer have a role in general complaints about a school, although they do still hear curriculum complaints. If you are complaining about LA services (including complaints about assessment) you should do so to the most senior education officer. You must complain to the LA before taking the complaint further.
Complaining to the Information Commissioner
You can complain to the Information Commissioner if you have problems accessing school records, minutes of governors meetings, school policies or other public documents, or if you believe your child’s school records have been disclosed unlawfully, are incorrect or out of date.
You should first exhaust the school or LA complaints procedure. There are different timescales for schools to reply to your requests:
- a copy of a child’s educational record must be supplied within 15 school days. (The Education [Pupil Information] [England] Regulations, 2005 [SI 1437])
- other personal information must be supplied within 40 days of your written request. (Section 7 of the Data Protection Act, 1998)
- documents such as the school SEN Policy, school accessibility plan or governing body minutes must be provided within 20 working days (excluding school holidays) of your written request under the Freedom of Information Act, 2000.
Freedom of Information and Data protection complaints forms can be found at:
Complaining to Ofsted
Ofsted is the body which inspects a range of public services including schools. Schools are inspected at least once every three years. Parents have a legal right to complain to Ofsted on the work of maintained schools, academies, city technology colleges, maintained nursery schools and non-maintained special schools.
Ofsted could investigate complaints about:
- quality of education and standards achieved
- inadequate provision for pupils with SEN
- neglect of pupils’ personal development and wellbeing
- the quality of leadership and management. For example, whether the school spends its money well.
It is important to remember that you can only make complaints to Ofsted about issues that affect the whole school and not about an individual child.
Ofsted can call an immediate inspection of a school at short notice, if it feels your complaint is very serious. It can also call meetings with the school and the local authority.
You can complain to Ofsted online at:
Complaining to the Teaching Agency
If you have an allegation of serious misconduct against an individual teacher or headteacher, you can complain to the Teaching Agency.
Complaining to the Secretary of State for Education
The Department for Education (DfE) will look at a complaint about a maintained school, academy or free school from anyone who is unhappy with the way in which a school is acting.
For the Secretary of State to intervene in a school following a complaint, he needs to be sure either that the school has acted or is proposing to act unreasonably in the exercise or performance of its functions under certain legislation, or that the school has failed to discharge a duty at all under certain legislation.
For guidance on making a complaint to the Secretary of State and a complaints form, go to:
Appeal to the SEND Tribunal
You can appeal to the SEND Tribunal about decisions that the local authority has made about your child, and disability discrimination by schools and local authorities.
The kind of decisions you can appeal against include refusal to carry out a statutory assessment, refusal to make a statement and parts 2, 3 and/or 4 of a statement.
In regards to schools, you can make a claim of disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if your child is disabled within the meaning of that Act – not all children with SEN are disabled – and you feel they have been discriminated against.
You can find more about appealing to the SEND Tribunal at:
Complain to the Local Government Ombudsman
The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) investigates complaints of injustice arising from maladministration by local authorities. They are able to consider the role of the school as part of a wider complaint against the local authority. They currently consider complaints about:
Special educational needs
You cannot complain to the Ombudsman about whether or not a local authority decides to assess your child, which is a matter for the SEND Tribunal. However you can complain about any delay in assessment, failure to carry out the provision set out in the statement or to carry out an annual review. The Ombudsman can look at the school’s role in this. It may also be able to look at what the school has done in response to your child’s SEN at school action plus, as long as you have previously complained to the local authority.
The Ombudsman is not another level of appeal and cannot question decisions if they were taken properly and fairly by the admissions authority or the appeal panel.
You can complain if you think that a place at a school was refused because of some unfairness or mistake by the admissions authority, or if your appeal was handled incorrectly, or you have asked for an appeal and the admissions authority has not arranged an appeal hearing for you within a reasonable time.
You cannot complain to the LGO if the complaint is about an academy (unless that academy has transferred from a maintained school during the admissions process), independent (private) school or city technology college.
If you are refused the school place you asked for and you want to pursue the matter, the first thing you need to do is to make an appeal to an independent appeal panel. The admissions authority should tell you how to do this.
If your child has a statement of SEN, you can appeal to the SEND Tribunal. The LGO could consider a complaint about any delay by a council in arranging an offer of a place at a school once the final statement has been issued.
Permanent exclusion from a school
The LGO cannot look at any aspect of an exclusion prior to an appeal. When a decision has been reached, you can complain to the Ombudsman about the way in which the independent review panel has dealt with your case.
Once a child has been permanently excluded, the council has a duty to provide alternative education, and the LGO can look into how the council has carried out this duty.
For information of complaining to the Local Government Ombudsman, visit:
How do I find support?
If you need confidential advice and support, you should speak to your local parent partnership service. Details of your local service can be found at:
Legal advice on matters relating to education and SEN is also available from:
Coram Children’s Legal Centre:
Independent Parental Special Educational Advice:
Martha Evans is Information and Communications Officer at the National Parent Partnership Network, which is based at the Council for Disabled Children. You can find out more about your local parent partnership service and how to contact them at: