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To: Department for Education
Independent Complaints & Monitoring Body for Schools & Local Authorities
England's education system gives schools & local authorities a great deal of autonomy to apply rules & regulations & to interpret Department for Education (DfE) guidelines as they see fit. Any complaints to schools and Local Authorities (LA) are generally investigated internally.
Not Fine in School (NFIS) is a 11,800+ strong group of parents/professionals, whose children struggle to attend school for various reasons. In a snapshot survey conducted in May 2018, NFIS members told us: only 5% of parents were satisfied with the outcome of their complaint to a headteacher; 11% were satisfied with the outcome of a complaint to their LA; 36% were satisfied with the outcome of a complaint to the LGO; & only 5% of parents were satisfied with the outcome of a complaint to the DfE. In addition, 56% of parents were accused of being 'unreasonably persistent' in pursuing their complaint, & 31% were referred to Social Services after making their complaint. Since this survey was conducted we have not seen any signs of improvements to complaint systems, or any increase in accountability. In fact, the Covid-19 related changes to practices and legislation are likely to have made the situation even more complex and unclear.
NFIS is therefore calling for a new independent, transparent & objective body to enable a fair complaints process across England's education system. This body must be empowered to monitor practices & investigate complaints fully, with the legal authority to apply consequences if schools or local authorities behave illegally or misinterpret government guidelines.
Why is this important?
Legislation & DfE guidance state how schools & local authorities must comply with the law. If statutory guidance or duties are not followed, any enforcement is left to individual families using ineffective complaint procedures; or the LGO service, which won’t act in the face of ultra vires local policies that exceed the scope of LA powers. Those who break the law need to face financial consequences with compensation for victims. It should not be left to parents to use Judicial Review to bring law breakers to account.
Complaints often relate to a lack of support & provision (for SEND, trauma, mental/physical illness or disability); delays in securing assessments & diagnoses; & a refusal to accept the existence of some school-related issues (e.g., bullying, anxiety, peer abuse, or sensory overload). Many of these complaints are effectively disability discrimination.
Some comments made by parents:
“To stand by and say nothing when there is an escalating problem would be negligent of me in my parental duties. Yet I found myself being accused of all sorts by the professionals with whom I simply wanted to find resolution & move forward for the sake of my children.”
"The system is a shambles and allows neglect of disabled children’s rights to an education. Until the system penalises those who ignore legislation it will never change. Delays save money. Even the complaints system at the LA needs complaining about as they are always delayed and are never solved."
"The LA seem to have their own rules about providing education for SEN and are not answerable to anyone"
"The response to my complaint (about the Head) was written by the head herself!"
According to The Department for Education:
Statutory guidance sets out what schools & local authorities must do to comply with the law. They should follow this guidance unless they have a good reason not to do so. Some guidance must be followed without exception. In addition, statutory policies contain regulations & guidance that underpin a governing body’s decision-making process & these must be adhered too as they are enshrined in law.
THE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY
The current lack of effective accountability in the system leads to significant psychological and/or physical harm for children and young people, severe difficulties for families, & damage to educational outcomes.
There are specific areas of law which give rise to the majority of complaints:
When children & young people (CYP) need individual SEND provision, schools, academies, & local authorities do not always comply with the SEND Code of Practice & other SEND-related policies, statutory guidance & laws. This denies CYP access to suitable educational provision.
When children & young people experience physical or mental health difficulties, schools & local authorities do not always comply with the guidance around supporting pupils with medical conditions at school. This denies CYP access to suitable educational provision.
When children & young people are bullied schools & local authorities often do little to help or protect them from harm. By law, all maintained schools must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils. Schools must also follow anti-discrimination law, meaning staff must act to prevent discrimination, harassment & victimisation within the school. Not doing so denies CYP a suitable education within a safe environment.
In recent years there has been a rise in cases of sexual assault in schools. Relevant guidance has been created however, many schools are unaware of this & are failing to protect victims, denying them an education within a safe environment.
When any of these issues occur, children & young people struggle to maintain attendance at school. This can lead to school-attendance-related penalties & prosecutions for parents/carers, implemented because schools can use their own judgement to authorise or un-authorise absence under laws originally designed to combat truancy (not absence as a result of unmet needs, threats to personal safety, severe academic pressure, or physical/mental illness).
THE LACK OF INDEPENDENCE & TRANSPARENCY
To make a complaint, parents need to follow the policy/complaints procedure of the relevant school or academy. Initially this means bringing a complaint to the Headteacher & then, if necessary, the Board of Governors or Trustees. This effectively means that a parent or carer has to ask the people they are complaining about to investigate their complaint, which is not fair or transparent.
If no resolution is found with a school there is the option to contact:
- The Local Authority
- Then, the Department for Education
- Then, the Local Government Ombudsman (who can only investigate a limited range of issues or complaints).
Or, If no resolution is found with an Academy, the next steps are to approach:
- The Education Funding Agency
- & then the Secretary of State for Education
Parents report that these options are usually ineffective, time-consuming and stressful.
THE LACK OF SUPPORT
Any parent or carer currently has to manage this complaints process without any independent support or guidance. If complaints of non-compliance are not dealt with effectively, parents have no further recourse & are therefore powerless to help their children. They may also worry that they have made a complaint against the very organisation with whom they entrust their child on a daily basis.