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HCR Law Events

7 December 2023

Managing the increase in parental complaints

Over the last few years, schools have been increasingly seeking support in respect of parental complaints. Across the sector we are seeing not only an increase in the number of parental complaints which schools are receiving, but also in the number of vexatious complaints, which are particularly challenging for schools to manage.

There is no clear answer as to why we are seeing this increase in parental complaints, although there does appear to be a link between the sharp increase and the return to school following Covid-19. However, regardless of the reason for the increase, it is important that schools are well equipped to manage parental complaints effectively.

What complaints policies should schools have in place?

One of the simplest ways in which schools can streamline the complaints process is by having two separate polices in place: one for parents, and one for members of the public. This will allow complaints which are raised by members of the public to be managed in a more streamlined manner, as they do not need to be given the option to proceed to a stage 3 appeal panel.

It is key that schools ensure complaints policies are readily accessible by parents, members of the public and school staff. Schools should also take steps to ensure that staff understand how the complaints policies are implemented, and the steps which need to be taken at each stage.

Who should manage the complaint at each stage?

The first stage of the complaints process is informal resolution. This is used where the complainant makes contact with the school to raise a concern, perhaps with their child’s teacher or with the Head of Year. Complaints can often be resolved at this stage.

If the parents proceed to stage 2 and issue a formal complaint, the school will need to consider who is the most appropriate person to manage it. Complaints against school staff should be dealt with by the Headteacher. If the complaint is against the Headteacher it should be dealt with by a suitably skilled member of the governing body. However, the person who manages the stage 2 complaint cannot be involved at stage 3. Therefore, if it’s the school’s preference for the Chair of Trustees to be involved in the panel at stage 3, they must not be involved at stage 2.

Where might schools fail in their management of parental complaints?

Schools tend to fail in managing the complaints process, by failing to comply with their complaints policy and with Department for Education (DfE) guidance. Schools need to ensure that their  policy is followed at all stages of a complaint. This includes complying with timescales and, where this is not possible, communicating with the complainant to provide a revised timescale. Schools must ensure that it’s clear to the complainant, what the next stage of the process is.

Furthermore, schools should ensure that they provide appropriate responses at each stage of the complaints process. Responses should demonstrate that the complaint has been considered fully at each stage. Failure to do so is likely to lead to the complaint being progressed and, if details of the investigations carried out and reasoning for the outcome at stage 2 are unclear, management of the stage 3 appeal panel process may be more challenging. Schools must ensure, particularly at stage 3, that complainants are not allowed to bring new issues into the complaint.

Complainants should be given the opportunity to complete the complaints procedure in full, unless specific circumstances apply, such as they have not complied with timeframes set out within the school’s policy procedure

How can serial and vexatious complaints be managed?

The sector is seeing an increase in the number of vexatious complaints received from parents. These might include, for example:

  • Complaints which are obsessive, persistent, harassing, prolific and repetitious
  • Insistence upon pursuing complaints without merit or unrealistic outcomes beyond all reason
  • Insistence upon pursuing complains in an unreasonable manner
  • Complaints which are designed to cause disruption or annoyance
  • Demands for redress that lack any serious purpose or value.

Vexatious complaints are particularly challenging for schools to manage. Schools must ensure that they only treat a complaint as ‘vexatious’, rather than the complainant themselves. This means that schools must consider each complaint on its own merit to establish if it is  vexatious.

In some instances, despite all stages of the school’s complaint procedure having been exhausted, parents may remain dissatisfied and attempt to re-open the issue. In these cases, the school should inform the complainant that the matter is closed. If the complainant makes contact again on the same issue, schools may choose not to respond. However, a complaint must not be marked as ‘serial’ if the complainant has not exhausted the complaints procedure.

We recommend that schools have in place a published policy for managing serial and unreasonable complaints. It can also help to put in place a home-school agreement, signed by parents, explicitly stating the school’s expectations in respect of behaviour and communication.

Next steps

The most effective way for schools to ensure they manage parental complaints effectively and efficiently is to ensure that their complaints policies are well drafted and are understood by staff, and are complied with when complaints are received.

At various stages of the complaints process there will be opportunities to consider pushing back on the complaint. For example, school complaints policies should include a timescale of, for example, 3 months within which a complaint must be raised. This will allow the school to consider the complaint out of time if the complainant does not comply with this timescale. If your school’s complaints policy does not include a timescale for complaints to be raised, we recommend that you update it as this can be a helpful way to close complaints off before they get off the ground.

Finally, many schools find that having a standard letter prepared for each stage can help streamline the process.

If you would like any support with preparing your complaints policies, creating template responses to complainants, or if you have a challenging complaint and would like advice, please get in touch.

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About the Author
Emma Swann, Partner, Head of Academies

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