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Making a complaint about your child's education

Photo: Get support on making complaints about your child's education

If you have a concern or complaint about your child’s education it’s important to know who to speak to about it.

Who you complain to and how complaints are handled depends on what you’re complaining about. For example, complaints about special educational needs (SEN) are handled differently from complaints about how the school is run.

Note: A new system for supporting children and young people with additional learning needs in Wales is being implemented from 1st September 2021. In time, all current support plans (including Statements, IEPs and LSPs) will be replaced with Individual Development Plans (IDPs).

Find out more about the changes in Wales on our page Additional learning needs (ALN) in Wales. We will update the website with more information on the new system in Wales shortly, in the meantime see Written Statement: Additional Learning Needs and Educational Tribunal Act 2018 Implementation.

How do I complain about my child’s school?

Below are the main steps involved in making a complaint about your child’s school.

1. If possible, raise your concern or complaint informally with the people involved.
For example, if you’re worried about your child’s progress, talk to their class teacher. This is sometimes known as stage A of a complaint.

2. If the person you’ve spoken to can’t help, or you aren’t satisfied with their response, you could make a formal complaint to the headteacher. This is sometimes known as stage B of a complaint.

3. Before making a formal complaint (and throughout the complaints process) read up on policies and guidance that could help you:

  • All state-funded schools must have a complaints policy, which should be available on their website. The policy should explain how to make a complaint, and how your complaint should be handled, including timescales for responding to you.
  • Ask if the school has specific policies relating to the issue you’re complaining about. For example, an equal opportunities policy or anti-bullying policy.
  • The Welsh Government’s website has information on guidance that schools should follow to comply with the law.

4. If you aren’t happy with the school’s response to your complaint, the next step is to raise it with the school governing body. This is sometimes known as stage C of a complaint. The complaints policy or any letter you receive in response to your complaint should explain how to do this, and when you can expect a response.

5. Your complaint will usually be heard by a committee established by the governing body of the school. The committee will usually meet to decide how to respond to your complaint. In most cases, you should expect to receive an invitation to this meeting.

6. If your complaint can’t be resolved by the school, the school may refer you to the local authority (LA) and ask them to consider your complaint. This is sometimes known as stage D. However, this stage isn’t available in all areas – check the school’s complaints policy to see if it’s available where you live.

This is usually the end of the process. Unless there is a stage D in place (see above), LAs will normally only hear complaints about how the complaint has been handled. This might include complaints about, for example, the school not having a clear complaints process or taking too long to respond. In these circumstances, the LA can intervene to make sure the school handles your complaint properly.

The Welsh Government will refer any complaints about schools to the school itself or the LA. The inspection body, Estyn, doesn’t hear complaints about schools.

More information about how complaints against schools should be handled can be found in the Welsh Government guidance Complaints Procedures for School Governing Bodies in Wales. This sets out a recommended approach that schools should follow.

What if my child wants to make a complaint?

Pupils in Wales can also make complaints in their own right. Schools should follow the same process as they do for parents. The school should normally let you know that your child has made a complaint – although they may ask your child to consent to this first.

Pupils can also ask for support from an ‘advocate’ or companion to help them get their views across. Pupils can ask for support from MEIC for information, advice and support with this.

How do I complain about my child’s special educational needs (SEN) support?

This is a different process to complaining about statements.

Please note, the Welsh Government is proposing a number of changes to how children with SEN are supported. This will involve a change of terminology, using the term additional learning needs (ALN) instead of SEN. These changes are expected to come into force from September 2018 at the earliest. For updates on these changes check our Campaigns page.

If your child has SEN and your complaint is about the support that your child is receiving to help them with their SEN, then you should first raise any concerns you have with the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) at the school.

You can also contact your child’s Teacher of the Deaf – they have an important role to play in advising the school on how to support deaf children and may be able to intervene directly.

If you aren’t happy with the school’s response to your complaint, the next step is to raise it with the headteacher. See step 2/stage B above.

You can also contact the LA because LAs have a responsibility to make sure that schools meet the SEN of your child.

Disagreement resolution

LAs must provide a disagreement resolution service for parents, children and young people with SEN. The service should be independent of the LA. You can use a disagreement resolution service even if your child doesn’t have a statement.

The service can hear complaints between parents/children/young people and the school and LA. Details of how to use the disagreement resolution service should be available on the LA’s website.

If you use a disagreement resolution service, anything discussed in these meetings should be treated in confidence.

You can use the disagreement resolution service at any time. This can be as well as, or instead of, using the formal complaints process. However, if your complaint is about your child’s statement, you need to be aware of the time limits in place (see below).

How do I complain about my child’s statement?

If your complaint is about the content of a statement, or if the LA has refused to carry out a statutory assessment of your child’s SEN or to issue/maintain a statement, you can appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal Wales.

You don’t need to make a formal complaint before you appeal to the Tribunal, but strict time limits apply. An appeal usually has to be made within two months of the date of the LA’s decision which you are disputing.

If you want to use a disagreement resolution service before the two months is up, it’s important that you ask the Tribunal for an extension or you may lose your right to appeal.

You can find more information about how to appeal to the Tribunal in our factsheet Appealing to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal in Wales.

How do I complain about disability discrimination?

Under the Equality Act 2010, schools, other education providers and local authorities (LAs) must make reasonable adjustments to make sure that deaf children and young people (with or without SEN) are not discriminated against or at a substantial disadvantage.

In other words, this means that the school, or any other education body:

  • can’t treat your child unfairly for any reason related to their deafness
  • must make reasonable adjustments to make sure your child can overcome any disadvantages created by their deafness
  • must provide equipment and services (e.g. specialist equipment such as radio aids) unless this would be seen as unreasonable adjustment.

If you’re concerned that your child has been discriminated against, you can take a complaint to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal Wales. You must do this within six months of when the discrimination first started.

You can do this as well as, or instead of, making a complaint to the school.

For more information on your child’s rights under the Equality Act go to the Equality Act and your child's educationThis page should help you to work with nurseries, schools, further and higher education settings and LAs to make sure your child gets the support they need.

It also tells you what to do if you believe that discrimination is taking place or has taken place, or if you feel that someone is failing to make reasonable adjustments to support your child.

You can also get more information on the Tribunal website or by contacting the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Are there any other ways I can complain?

The Public Services Ombudsman Wales

The Public Services Ombudsman Wales can’t hear complaints against schools. However, they can consider complaints against LAs, but only if you’ve made a formal complaint to the LA first. It will look at whether the LA has followed the law properly and fairly or whether there is any evidence of ‘maladministration’.

It can’t look at cases where the LA has followed the law but you disagree with its final decision.

It also can’t look at cases which can be taken to a Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal Wales such as a refusal by the LA to carry out a statutory assessment of your child’s needs or a disagreement over the contents of your child’s statement.

Examples of cases that the Ombudsman might consider include:

  • the LA hasn’t provided a disagreement resolution service
  • the LA is failing to deliver support specified in your child’s statement
  • the LA is taking too long to let you know if they will carry out an assessment
  • the LA doesn’t respond to any formal complaints that you make.

You should make your complaint to the Ombudsman within one year of the LA’s decision or action that you made a complaint about.

Assembly members and local councillors

You can write to one of your Assembly Members or your local councillor to ask them to support your complaint and/or write to the school and LA on your behalf. Your Assembly Members and councillors will usually hold surgeries where you can meet them in person to discuss your complaint.

Legal action and judicial reviews

A judicial review is a form of legal action and a way of challenging a public service’s decision-making process in the High Court. Public services include LAs, schools, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal Wales and the Department for Education and Skills at the Welsh Government.

Examples of when you may be able to apply for a judicial review include if you think a public service has:

  • acted illegally
  • not followed proper procedures
  • acted irrationally.

You must apply for a judicial review as soon as possible. Normally you must make an application within three months of the incident you’re complaining about.

Judicial review is not a quick process and there are a number of procedural rules which need to be followed – it could take several months at least for your case to come to court. Judicial reviews can also be very costly.

If you would like to apply for a judicial review or take any kind of legal action, you should seek advice from a solicitor. It’s important to make sure that the solicitor is experienced in education law and, if a judicial review is being considered, in public law too.

Solicitors can help in different ways, for example, they will be able to give you advice and can also help you to take a case to court. If your LA is slow in responding to you, or you think they haven’t co-operated, a letter from a solicitor can help take things forward.

Solicitors charge for their services. However, you may be able to get funding through legal aid. If you are eligible for legal aid, you may be able to get advice from Civil Legal Advice.

You can find a solicitor in a number of ways. The Law Society gives details of solicitors and their specialist areas.

When you contact a solicitor:

  • ask what experience they have in special educational needs and education law
  • find out what their fees are
  • ask if you qualify for legal aid
  • if you aren’t clear on an issue, double check and ask questions
  • ask the solicitor to confirm advice and information in writing.

Tips on making a complaint

  • If possible, always raise any concerns you have informally before making a formal complaint.
  • All schools must have a complaints policy, which should be available on their website. Ask for the school’s policy so you know what to expect and how your complaint should be handled.
  • Other public bodies, such as the local authority, should also have information about how you can make a complaint. This should be available on their website.
  • Make it clear that you’re making a formal complaint and ask them to treat your complaint in line with their complaints policy.
  • Think about what you want your complaint to achieve. Do you want an apology? For the other person to admit they made a mistake? To make sure bad practice doesn’t happen again? Make sure you explain what you want to happen when you make the complaint.
  • Keep a record of phone calls and copies of any letters, emails, meeting notes or reports to do with the complaint – these may be useful later if you need to take your complaint further.
  • Read up on your rights in education. Sometimes, just showing that you’re aware of your rights can make it more likely that your complaint will be taken seriously.
  • Try to stay calm and polite. It will be easier for other people to dismiss your concerns if they feel that you’re being aggressive or unreasonable.