Catch up: Advice for the current times – ‘SCHOOL COMPLAINTS – The Art of the Possible’

An on-demand event jointly hosted by the NAHT and Discovery Education.

Andrew Hammond and Guy Dudley discussed the issues currently facing school leaders and those teaching and working in schools.

In this session, we covered:

  • ‘Staff’ complaints – we’ll take a look at what to do when a member of your staff raises a complaint
  • ‘Parental’ complaints – an evergreen challenge for all school leaders, we’ll be looking at strategies how to best deal with complaints raised by parents and others who provide care for pupils at your school
  • Other complaints – a quick round up of other complaints, from the serious to the not so serious

Many of these topics have been supported by wider advice pieces that can be found in Pathway’s Advice Hub where you will have access to an on-line library of information, advice and guidance to support you in your professional role and your continuing professional and personal development and empowerment.

If you’re a Pathway subscriber, you can access these advice pieces in the Pathway Advice Hub.



Despite your best efforts in making the school as enjoyable a place to work, there will be occasions when and where a member of staff or more than one member of staff has a legitimate cause to raise a complaint.

A complaint raised in an employment setting is typically referred to as a grievance and whilst they are procedurally straightforward, they are best avoided – why? – because most grievances can be and are resolved informally.

There will be occasions however, when raising a formal grievance is the right thing to do, especially if informal attempts have failed or the nature of the complaint is particularly serious. Your employer may have a grievance policy in place – most do – if they do, it will be based, in large part or wholly, on the ACAS grievance procedure

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, aka ACAS, is a government-funded independent body. ACAS’s principal function is to resolve workplace disputes, thereby avoiding industrial action and general workplace disruption.


Top Tips

  • Avoid judging the complainant, try your best to resolve any staff complaint informally and as soon as possible
  • Qualify the precise nature of the complaint and ask the complainant what they want as a resolution
  • If the formal procedure is invoked, please follow it [don’t fight it] – it’s there to protect everyone



Let’s start with some clarification of who parents are exactly and their lawful responsibilities in a school setting.


Definition of a parent and parental responsibility

Section 576 of the Education Act 1996 defines parents as being:

  • all natural (biological) parents, whether they are named or not
  • any person who, although not a natural parent, has parental responsibility for a child or young person (this could be a step-parent, guardian or other relative)
  • any person who, although not a natural parent, has care of a child or young person.

A person has care of a child or young person if they are the person with whom the child lives and who looks after the child, irrespective of what their relationship is with the child. Everyone who is a parent, recognised by the Education Act 1996, can participate in their child’s education: attend parents’ evenings; receive a copy of the pupil’s annual report; be sent copies of school letters etc.


In family law, parental responsibility means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent has in relation to the child. Key to schools, this gives parents the right to:

  • give valid consent for a child’s medical treatment (subject to the competency of the child to give their own consent or object to the treatment being proposed)
  • access their child’s health records
  • withdraw their child from sex education and religious education classes and make representations to the school concerning their child’s education.


A parental complaint

A parental complaint can be distressing, frustrating and time-consuming, so it’s best to start with a policy.

It’s imperative that your school has a clear and robust complaints policy – a flowchart will help to prompt what needs to be done, documented, when, and by whom. Pathway strongly recommend NAHT’s model policy because it takes an ‘investigatory approach’ rather than an ‘adversarial approach’ to complaints. It does not, therefore, involve a hearing where parents can cross-examine others as is the case in many local authority and church schools’ policies.

It’s also key to ensure staff are familiar with the policy and that members of the governing body have been trained and are confident and able to investigate a complaint or chair a panel should the need arise. Finally, be in no doubt that you’re deploying the correct complaints procedure – for example, complaints about the conduct of staff should be investigated under the school’s disciplinary procedure whilst complaints about serious malpractice should be dealt with under the employer’s whistleblowing policy.

Top Tips

  • Qualify the precise nature of the complaint and ask the complainant what they want as a resolution
  • If the formal procedure is invoked, please follow it [don’t fight it] – it’s there to protect everyone

Typically, any complaints procedure will have three stages: an investigation, a hearing and an appeal. Pathway’s Advice Hub sets out the typical steps in greater detail under a document called, rather unsurprisingly, “Parental Complaints”.

Now, let’s turn our attention to actually with dealing with parental complaints and look at some of the common issues faced by school leaders when they have to deal with parents when they raise complaints.


Complaint campaigns and persistent complainants

Sadly, it appears that more people are taking to mounting campaigns when they feel they have a complaint about the school. They can more easily drum up support through Twitter, Facebook etc. than would have been the case before the advent of social media. Often, it’s not even people with a particular stake in the school who get involved.

NAHT recommends you include a separate procedure in your complaints policy to handle complaints of this nature. This could include:

  • sending a template response to all complainants
  • publishing a single response on the school’s website [recommended]

In addition, you may choose to consider whether you need another member of your leadership team to deal with the complainant. Should the complainant continue to make contact on the same issue, the chair of governors has the power to inform them that the process is complete and that the matter is closed.

Be aware that some complainants may choose to contact the DfE or Secretary of State. If this happens, it’s important to know that the School Complaints Unit [to whom the Secretary of State’s powers are delegated) will only consider cases in which the governing body has acted unlawfully or unreasonably. It will only overturn a decision in extreme circumstances. If it decides that a school has not followed its published procedures, it has the power to direct that the process is revisited.

If the complainant pursues the allegations with Ofsted, it is not within Ofsted’s remit to investigate such complaints, and the parent will usually be directed to the employer – the local authority (for maintained schools) or the academy trust. The employer will then usually refer the matter back to the school, and the school should be able to show that the complaint has already been dealt with, lawfully and reasonably.


Persistent correspondents

If a complainant frequently contacts the school, causing a significant level of disruption, but they refuse to engage with the complaints procedure, your school can take the following action:

  • restrict the complainant to a single point of contact via an email address
  • limit the number of times the complainant can make contact
  • put a communications plan in place with which the complainant will be expected to comply.

Any such actions are confined to the complainant’s capacity to complain – for all other issues, the complainant can contact the school as normal.

It’s strongly recommended that your complaints policy is modified to manage persistent correspondents, especially in cases in which they are not directly associated.


Anonymous complaints

Schools will not normally be expected to investigate anonymous complaints. However, the head teacher or chair of governors, if appropriate, will determine whether the nature of the complaint justifies any further action.


Complaints received outside term time

You should treat complaints made outside term time to have been received on the first school day after the holiday period.


Scope of your complaints procedure

Your complaints procedure should deal with all complaints about the provision of services by your school. Other complaints  are dealt with under other statutory procedures [e.g. admissions].

If other bodies are investigating aspects of the complaint, for example the police or the local authority safeguarding team, this is likely to impact on your ability to adhere to the timescales within your procedure or result in the procedure being suspended, until those bodies have completed their investigations.

If a complainant commences legal action against your school in relation to their complaint, you should consider, with the support of your legal support service, whether to suspend the complaints procedure in relation to their complaint until those legal proceedings have concluded.


Managing complaints that are made unreasonably

It’s surprising how many schools still don’t have a procedure to deal with parental complaints that are made unreasonably, especially in cases when and where the behaviour of a parent falls short of standards expected by the school. Make it clear in your complaints policy that your school does not expect staff to be subjected to unacceptable behaviour and will take action to protect staff from that behaviour, including that which is abusive, offensive or threatening.

There are, of course, many other examples of what’s held to be ‘unreasonable’ and these are set out in “NAHT’s model complaints procedure”, available on the Pathway Advice Hub.

Whenever possible, the head teacher or chair of governors should discuss any concerns with the complainant informally before applying an ‘unreasonable’ marking.

If the behaviour continues, the head teacher should write to the complainant explaining that their behaviour is unreasonable and ask them to change it.

In response to any serious incident of aggression or violence, you should immediately contact the police and document your actions in writing that can be later relayed to the complainant. This may include barring a parent from your school.


Recording meetings covertly

Many schools don’t have any reference to recording conversations in their complaints policy and it would make the process of dealing with this action much easier if they did. Complainants should make sure they obtain consent from all parties present before recording conversations or meetings.

Unless exceptional circumstances apply, employers [local authorities and academy trusts] will support schools who refuse to accept, as evidence, recordings of conversations that were obtained covertly and without the consent of all parties being recorded. We recommend this is made clear in complaints procedure.


When to stop responding

The decision by schools to stop responding to complainants should never be taken lightly.

If you do make that decision however, you need to be able to say yes to all of the following:

  • you have taken every reasonable step to address the complainant’s concerns
  • the complainant has been given a clear statement of the school’s position and their options
  • the complainant contacts you repeatedly, making substantially the same points each time


The case to stop responding is made stronger if you agree with one or more of these statements:

  • their letters, emails, or telephone calls are often or always abusive or aggressive
  • they make insulting personal comments about or threats towards staff
  • you have reason to believe the individual is contacting you with the intention of causing disruption or inconvenience

You should not stop responding just because an individual is difficult to deal with or asks difficult questions. It would be useful to forewarn complainants who will not let go of a particular complaint, despite having used the school’s complaints procedure and being given a definitive position by the school about which there can be no debate, by inserting some reference to the possibility of the school taking ‘stop responding’ action when it is necessary to do so.


Complainants who use social media to air their complaint

This is a very common problem. In respect of social media, it’s held that unreasonable behaviour is committed when a complainant publishes unacceptable information on social media or on other public forums.

In this event, the school should ask the complainant to refrain from publicising the details of their complaint on social media, remove any offending article/s and respect confidentiality. However, it is worth having a separate ‘social media’ paragraph in the school’s complaints policy.

None of these actions will put an end to serial and unreasonable complaints and there will, unfortunately, be people who make vexatious complaints. These minor changes to your complaints policy will however provide you with a few more tools for dealing with them.


Dealing with abusive visitors

In law, schools provide a public function but, at the same time, they are private places. The public has no automatic right of entry. Parents of enrolled pupils have what’s called an ‘implied licence’ to come onto the school’s premises at certain stated times, and it is for schools to define and set out the extent of such access. Day-to-day access to a school’s premises is within the control of the head teacher.

Usually, parental access to the school’s premises will be by appointment or invitation by the school. Parents of younger pupils will commonly be allowed into the playground at the beginning and end of the school day. Nevertheless, schools should have an agreed approach on parental access and make it known to parents. Parents are typically granted what’s called ‘limited licence’ to visit the grounds and buildings of a school; as such, most schools will establish a protocol that will set out the acceptable purposes for such visits, the areas of the school that may be entered at particular times and the standard of expected behaviour, etc.

Where there is a breach of such a protocol, the school needs to respond in a measured way, depending on the nature of the breach. In the event of a breach, the school will typically respond in one of the following incremental ways:

  • Initiate a meeting or dialogue with the visitor
  • Write to the visitor, describe their misconduct and its impact on the school
  • Adjust the person’s ‘licence’, say, through the imposition of visiting conditions
  • Warn of the possibility of a ban from the school if they repeat the misconduct
  • Impose a ban with a review after a fixed period or impose a permanent

A head teacher can initiate any of the above actions on their authority; however, personal confrontation is less likely if the governing or the employing body, as appropriate, initiate the more serious sanctions.

There is no place for violence, threatening behaviour or abuse in schools. Where such behaviour does occur, schools must know that its employing body will play an active role in taking all possible action to deal with it effectively.


Prevention strategies

There are other strategies that can help in preventing conflict with parents or stopping them escalating matters – these include mediation and conflict resolution.

Schools might also choose to develop non-statutory Acceptable Behaviour Contracts for some parents – these require the agreement of the parent to an acceptable level of behaviour.

“Dealing with Abusive Visitors” is a full and comprehensive guide of non-statutory and statutory remedies available to schools that will enable them to deal with particularly difficult parents [available on Pathway’s Advice Hub].

An appropriate risk assessment of the potential of violence and threatening behaviour at school and personal safety training for staff are also recommended – an idea for an INSET day agenda item for example.

Further strategies for dealing with such incidents are provided in a full and comprehensive guide entitled “Violence and Threatening Behaviour at school”, also available on Pathway’s Advice Hub.


Building an effective Home-School Partnership

Finally, in this section, we touch on how schools can work with their pupils and their families to generate more positive relationships with each other.

Research and evidence by Parentkind shows that when parents are involved in their children’s education, children do better on a range of measures:

  • Their behaviour is better
  • They have greater self-esteem
  • Their attendance is higher
  • The risk of exclusion is lower
  • They are more keen to learn
  • They achieve better results
  • Achievement gaps between children from different socio-economic backgrounds are closed

Ofsted evaluates schools on parent engagement under leadership and management and has found the most effective schools work in partnership with parents. The benefits of parental engagement are clear – Parentkind acknowledges that schools want to engage parents, and parents want to be engaged.

The approaches to building parental engagement can be found in the Pathway Advice Hub in a guide called “Parentkind and how to build an effective home-school partnership”.



In 2019, when the government last revised its ‘complaints’ advice to schools, it suggested that complaints procedures should be available to children at school.

NAHT acknowledged the rights of children to complain about any feature of their school experience, but argued that children – particularly those at primary school – might benefit from using a different complaints procedure to adults and schools could consider a procedure that is perhaps more closely aligned to their pupil voice strategy.

Problems might arise, for instance, with:

  • Homework, whether it is too much or too little, too hard or too easy
  • School meals
  • The behaviour of others either inside school or on the way to or from school
  • Lunchtimes and breaktimes.

Pathway has a very good advice and guidance document on its Advice Hub – “Setting up a child-friendly complaints procedure” – as it’s name suggests, we provide some useful context from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and from the Children’s Commissioner, a step-by-step guide on how you can establish such a procedure and even a model policy – we’ve done the ‘heavy-lifting’ so you don’t have to.

There is no legal compulsion to have a child-friendly complaints procedure but you may feel that it enhances what your school may already have in place and your pupil voice strategy.


Of course, complaints aren’t always the exclusive domain of staff, parents and pupils.

In many urban school settings, schools will have neighbours, residential and commercial – they’ll also have valuable green spaces [aka playing fields] that are often regarded, by some as, ‘ripe’ for property development. If this is a familiar problem, it’s best to refer matters to your employer – the designation of school land is their responsibility – and they will probably need the support of their legal and media teams.


Examples of some more light-hearted complaints:

Pupil: I want to bring my pet snake into school. I have been told I can’t. Why can’t I? He’s only bitten me twice this year.

Neighbour: On the subject of parents dropping their children off at school – parents have left me with no option but to park my car [illegally] across my driveway overnight and into the next morning – what can you do to stop this? 

Parent: There are simply not enough ice cream flavours on offer for our children!

Parent: I’m angry that the gap in the fence where I use to deliver burgers and chips to my children has been filled in and would be grateful if this area could be returned to its previous state of disrepair! 

Parent: Nathan, my son, is the youngest of my eight children. I’ve just seen his timetable and am very concerned about the amount of sex education on offer. Is there going to be enough of it?


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