How to complain or appeal if you have an issue with the way the school is supporting your child’s special needs or their EHCP.

There is a specific procedure for general complaints about schools that are not to do with special educational needs. You can find information on the schools complaints procedure here.

If you are unhappy with something at your child's educational setting and your child has special educational needs or disabilities, the first thing to do is to speak to the teacher, SENCO or tutor. You can ask a family member, friend or advocate to accompany you. There is a SENCO in every early years setting, school and educational establishment. They are responsible for coordinating provision for children or young people and young adults with SEND until the age of 25 if this young adult remains in education. If you are still unhappy, you should talk to the head teacher.

If you cannot resolve a problem informally, ask for a copy of the school's complaints procedure. By law, schools must have a procedure for parents to complain.

If things do go wrong and can't be solved informally, there are different options. Which route you take depends on what your complaint is about.

Information and advice

If you need confidential advice and support, you should speak to the SEND information, advice and support service.

Ways to submit an official complaint

Every school has a governing body, or an academy trust in the case of an academy. School complaint procedures usually end with complaining to the governing body of the educational establishment. A complaint to the governing body should be addressed to the chair of governors (or head of academy trust); please add ‘formal complaint’ at the top of any letters. If the school is a community or voluntary controlled school, you could also send a letter to the director in charge of local education services, often called the children and young people’s service.

Your complaint should include details of dates, times, meetings and decisions. Also try to explain what harm your child, young person or yourself has suffered as a result of the school’s action or inaction, as this may help the governing body understand the substance of your complaint. Include what you would like the governing body to do to put things right.

The governing body is likely to pass your complaint to a panel of governors, who may invite you to a meeting to look at the case in more detail.

If the governing body does not give you a satisfactory response, the sections below outline a number of options depending on the type of complaint you have.

For more information about school governors, see the GOV.UK running a school or college web page.

If you're not happy with the way the local authority is dealing with your child's special educational needs, try to resolve things informally in the first instance. SENDIASS is an arms-length organisation which offers a free and impartial advice service as well as mediation. They are trained in helping people in dispute to reach agreement.

Local authorities no longer have a role in general complaints about a school or educational institution, although they do still hear curriculum complaints. If you are complaining about council services (including complaints about assessment), you can submit a complaint online. You must complain to the council before taking the complaint further.

You can complain to the information commissioner if you have problems accessing school records, minutes of governors meetings, school policies or other public documents, or if you believe your child's or young person's records have been disclosed unlawfully, are incorrect or out of date.

You should first exhaust the school or council complaints procedure. There are different timescales for schools to reply to your requests.

  • A copy of a child's educational record must be supplied within 15 school days (The Education [Pupil Information] [England] Regulations, 2005 [SI 1437]).
  • Other personal information must be supplied within 40 days of your written request (Section 7 of the Data Protection Act, 1998).
  • Documents such as the school SEN policy, school accessibility plan or governing body minutes must be provided within 20 working days (excluding school holidays) of your written request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Freedom of information and data protection complaints can be reported via the Information Commissioner's Office report a concern page.

Ofsted is the body which inspects a range of public services including schools. Schools are inspected at least once every three years. Parents have a legal right to complain to Ofsted on the work of maintained schools, academies, city technology colleges, maintained nursery schools and non-maintained special schools.

It is important to remember that you can only make complaints to Ofsted about issues that affect the whole school and not about an individual child or young person.

Ofsted could investigate complaints about:

  • the quality of education and standards achieved;
  • inadequate provision for pupils with special educational needs;
  • neglect of pupils' personal development and wellbeing; and
  • the quality of leadership and management, for example, whether the school spends its money well.

Ofsted can call an immediate inspection of a school or educational institutions and programmes outside of higher education at short notice, if it feels your complaint is very serious. It can also call meetings with the school or other further education institution and the local authority.

You can complain to Ofsted online here.

If you have an allegation of serious misconduct against an individual teacher or head teacher, you can make a formal complaint to the National College for Teaching and Leadership if you're not satisfied with the response to your informal complaint.

The Department for Education will look at a complaint about a maintained school, academy or free school from anyone who is unhappy with the way in which a school or educational establishment is acting.

For the Department for Education to intervene in a school or educational establishment following a complaint, they need to be sure the school or educational establishment has:

  • acted or is proposing to act unreasonably in the exercise or performance of its functions under certain legislation; or
  • failed to discharge a duty at all under certain legislation.

You can complain to the Department for Education online here.

The local government ombudsman investigates complaints of injustice arising from poor administration by local authorities. They are able to consider the role of the school as part of a wider complaint against the local authority. They currently consider complaints about the following areas.

Special educational needs

You cannot complain to the ombudsman about whether or not a local authority decides to assess your child, which is a matter for the SEND tribunal. However, you can complain about and the ombudsman can look at the school's role in:

  • any delay in assessment;
  • a failure to carry out the provision set out in the statement or education, health and care plan; or
  • a failure to carry out an annual review.

It also may be able to look at what the school has done in response to your child's SEN at school action plus, as long as you have previously complained to the local authority.

School admissions

The ombudsman is not another level of appeal and cannot question decisions if they were taken properly and fairly by the admissions authority or appeal panel.

You can complain if:

  • you think a place at a school was refused because of some unfairness or mistake by the admissions authority;
  • you think your appeal was handled incorrectly; or
  • you have asked for an appeal and the admissions authority has not arranged an appeal hearing for you within a reasonable time.

You cannot complain to the ombudsman if the complaint is about an academy (unless that academy has transferred from a maintained school during the admissions process), independent (private) school or city technology college.

If you are refused the school place you asked for and you want to pursue the matter, the first thing you need to do is to make an appeal to an independent appeal panel.

If your child has an EHCP or statement of SEN, you can appeal to the SEND tribunal (see below). The ombudsman could consider a complaint about any delay by a council in arranging an offer of a place at a school once the final statement has been issued.

Permanent exclusion from a school

The ombudsman cannot look at any aspect of an exclusion prior to an appeal. When a decision has been reached, you can complain to the ombudsman about the way in which the independent review panel has dealt with your case.

Once a child has been permanently excluded, the council has a duty to provide alternative education, and the ombudsman can look into how the council has carried out this duty.

You can find more information about complaining to the local government ombudsman here.

Appeal to the SEND tribunal

Parents and young people can appeal to the SEND tribunal about decisions that the local authority has made about your child or young person or young adult up to 25 years old, and disability discrimination about schools, educational establishments and local authorities.

The Government are extending the powers of the tribunal, to make non-binding recommendations about the health and social care aspects of education, health and care plans as part of a two-year national trial. It is called the 'single route of redress'. The trial applies to decisions made or education, health and care plans issued or amended from 3 April 2018.

To date, you have only been able to appeal the educational aspects of education, health and care plans. The trial gives you new rights to request recommendations about the health and social care needs and provision specified in the plans, in addition to the educational aspects, when making a SEND appeal. This gives you the opportunity to raise all your concerns about an education, health and care plan in one place.

It is only possible for the tribunal to consider the health and / or social care aspects of the education, health and care plan where you are already making an appeal in relation to the education aspects of the plan, and the education aspect must remain live throughout the appeal.

More information

Parents and young people can appeal to the SEND tribunal about decisions that the local authority has made about your child or young person or young adult up to 25 years old, and disability discrimination about schools, educational establishments and local authorities.

The kind of decisions you can appeal against include refusal to carry out a statutory assessment, refusal to make a statement or education, health and care plan and parts 2, 3 and / or 4 of a statement.

In regards to schools, you can make a claim of disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if your child is disabled within the meaning of the Act (not all children with SEN are disabled) and you feel they have been discriminated against.

Appeals you might make

You might ask the tribunal to:

  • assess your child's educational, health and care (EHC) needs;
  • make a statement of their special educational needs;
  • reassess their special educational needs;
  • create an EHC plan;
  • change the special educational needs statement or EHC plan;
  • reject the special educational needs statement or stop the EHC plan.

For someone under 18 and in custody, you can appeal if:

  • the council doesn't make an EHC needs assessment;
  • the council doesn't think it's an EHC plan is needed after an assessment; or
  • the school or other institution that they'll attend once they're released isn't suitable.

You can also appeal to the tribunal if a school or local authority has discriminated against your child or someone else because of your child's disability, such as if they haven't provided support.

You can find more about appealing to the SEND tribunal at GOV.UK.

Before you can register an appeal with the tribunal, you must contact a mediation adviser within two months of the local authority decision you wish to appeal and consider whether mediation might be a way to resolve your disagreement with the local authority. If you want to appeal only about the school or other institution named in the education, health and care plan you do not have to contact a mediation adviser. 

You can go to mediation about the health and social care elements of an education, health and care plan, but this is not compulsory. You can request recommendations about health and social care issues without having to receive mediation advice or attend mediation about those issues, provided there is also an education issue about which you are appealing.

Once a mediation adviser has been contacted, or once you have taken part in mediation, you will be issued with a certificate. This will be necessary if you are still unhappy and wish to progress to an appeal with the tribunal. An appeal to the tribunal must usually be made within two months of the decision about which the appeal is being made or one month following the issuing of the mediation certificate, whichever is the later.

If mediation resolves the educational issues, you will not be able to appeal to the tribunal on any health and / or social care aspects of the education, health and care plan. However, mediation provides an opportunity for us to resolve disagreements and it can be completed more quickly than an appeal. It does not affect your right to make an educational appeal, and some aspects of the disagreement can go to appeal even when other aspects are resolved.

See our mediation and SEND information, advice and support service page for more information on local mediation.

This trial now gives you the opportunity to also request recommendations about the health and social care content of the plan at the same time as the educational content. This will mean the tribunal will take a more holistic, person-centred view of the needs of the child or young person.

You can request the tribunal makes recommendations about the health and / or social care aspects of education, health and care plans as part of an appeal relating to:

  • the description of the child or young person’s special educational needs in an education, health and care plan; 
  • the special educational provision specified in an education, health and care plan;
  • the school or other educational institution named in an education, health and care plan;
  • a decision by the local authority not to issue an education, health and care plan;
  • a decision by the local authority not to carry out a re-assessment for a child or young person who has an education, health and care plan;
  • a decision by the local authority not to amend an education, health and care plan following a review or re-assessment; or
  • a decision by the local authority to cease to maintain an education, health and care plan.

This does not prevent you also complaining about other aspects of your disagreement through other complaint procedures. You should seek advice about the different routes available, including from your local information advice and support service.

If the SEND tribunal makes a recommendation about health or social care elements of a plan, the local authority and / or health commissioner is generally expected to follow such recommendations, but they are not legally binding. Where they are not followed, the reasons for not following them must be explained and set-out in writing to you and to the Department for Education through the evaluators. If they are not followed, you can complain to the local government and social care ombudsman or parliamentary and health service ombudsman or seek to have the decision judicially reviewed.

Further guidance can be found in the trial toolkit of support here.

The trial places responsibility on local authority SEND teams to:

  1. inform parents and young people of their new rights through decision letters and the local offer;
  2. provide evidence to the tribunal from the health and social care bodies in response to any issues raised within the timeframe set by the tribunal, seeking permission to bring additional witnesses to the hearing as necessary; and
  3. if a recommendation has been made, send the health and social care response letters to the evaluators.

It also places responsibility on health and social care commissioners to:

  1. respond to any request for information and evidence within the timeframe set by the tribunal;
  2. dend a witness to attend the hearing as required; and
  3. respond to the parent or young person and the local authority SEND team within five weeks of a recommendation being made, setting out the steps they have decided to take or giving reasons why they are not going to follow the recommendation.

If you wish to appeal against a local authority decision on any of the grounds above and want to request that the tribunal considers your concerns about the health and / or social care aspects of the education, health and care plan, you should follow the normal process for bringing an appeal to the tribunal and tick the box on the form relating to a health and / or social care appeal.

There will be an independent evaluation of the trial to inform a decision on whether the new tribunal recommendation powers should be continued after the trial. The evaluation will run alongside the trial, from January 2018 to March 2021.

It is important that the evaluation is based on robust evidence, and the evaluators are therefore strongly encouraging participation from parents and young people. This could include taking part in a telephone or online interview just after the appeal hearing (or when the appeal process has been completed, if earlier), and then a follow-up interview six months later. These interviews will help the evaluators to gather the views of parents and young people on the appeal process, as well as identify how recommendations have been implemented and what the (early) impact has been.

Parents and young people that take part in the trial will receive a letter from the tribunal explaining more about the evaluation and how their personal data will be stored confidentially and how it will be protected.

The evaluation of the trial is led by IFF Research working with Belmana. For any questions or to get involved please get in touch with them at or telephone 0800 035 6051 (freephone).

Other resources

Legal advice on matters relating to education and SEN is also available from the Coram Children's Legal Centre.

More advice and resources can be found from the Independent Parental Special Educational Advice website.