Making a complaint 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.
Tips on making a complaint
- If possible always raise any concerns you have informally before making a formal complaint.
- All schools and other public bodies should have a complaints policy, which should be available on their website. Ask to see this policy so you know what to expect and how your complaint should be handled.
- 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.
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.
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 principal.
3. Before making a formal complaint (and throughout the complaints process) read up on policies and guidance that could help you:
- All schools should 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 Northern Ireland Government has published a list of all circulars 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 board of governors. The complaints policy or any letter you receive in response to your complaint should explain how to do this, how the complaint will be heard and when you can expect a response.
5. In some cases, if you aren’t happy with the response from the board of governors, there may be an opportunity for independent review by the Education Authority (EA), the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools or another external body. The response you receive from the board of governors should tell you if this option is available for your case.
The Education Training Inspectorate doesn’t hear complaints about schools; it will normally refer any complaints it receives to the school itself.
This is a different process to complaining about statements.
Please note, at the time of writing, the Northern Ireland Government is proposing a number of changes to how children with SEN are supported. These changes are expected to come into force in September 2018.
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 learning support coordinator 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 school board of governors – see step 4 above.
You can also contact the EA because it has a responsibility to make sure that schools meet the SEN of your child.
There is a Dispute Avoidance and Resolution Service (DARS) which provides an opportunity to resolve areas of disagreement between parents and schools and/or the EA.
If your complaint is about the content of a statement, or if the EA has refused to carry out a statutory assessment of your child’s SEN, you can appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.
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 EA’s decision which you are disputing.
You can find more information about how to appeal to the Tribunal in our factsheet Appealing to the SEN and Disability Tribunal in Northern Ireland about the Contents of Your Child's Statement.
All schools and other education bodies must follow the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005. This means that they can’t discriminate against your child. This means that the school:
- 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.
If you’re concerned that your child has been discriminated against, you can contact the Equality Commission Northern Ireland for advice and support on what to do next.
For more information go to Rights to equality in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO)
NIPSO considers complaints against the EA, but only if you’ve made a formal complaint to the EA first. It will look at whether the EA has followed the law properly and fairly or whether there is any evidence of ‘maladministration’.
It can’t look at cases where the EA 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 such as a refusal by the EA 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 EA is failing to deliver support specified in your child’s statement
- the EA is taking too long to let you know if they will carry out an assessment
- the EA doesn’t respond to any formal complaints that you make.
Since April 2017, the Ombudsman also considers complaints against schools but, as above, only if you’ve exhausted the school’s complaints process and if it isn’t an issue that you could appeal to a Tribunal about.
You should make your complaint to the Ombudsman within six months of the decision or action that you made a complaint about.
MPs and local councillors
You can write to your Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) or local councillor to ask them to support your complaint and/or write to the school and EA on your behalf. Your MLA 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 EAs, schools, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal and the Department of Education.
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 are 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 EA 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. More information on civil legal aid can be found on the Northern Ireland government website.
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.