Find out what to do if you have a disagreement or complaint about a SEND establishment or young people's training programme.

Many children with special educational needs will have their needs met by schools, colleges and local authorities without the need to make a formal complaint. If things do go wrong though, it is very important that parents are able to use informal and formal complaints procedures to remedy the situation as soon as possible.

There are different avenues you can take when making a complaint; it very much depends on what your complaint is about. It can be confusing, so this page outlines the process of making complaints about a school and looks at some of the most common complaints pathways and procedures.

If you are unhappy with something at your child's educational setting, the first thing to do is to speak to the teacher or tutor if you can, or ask a family member, friend or advocate to do this alongside 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 (Section 29 of the Education Act, 2002).

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.

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 should do so to the most senior education officer. 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 web 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.

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.

How to make a claim

  • 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 on the GOV.UK appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal page.

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. The admissions authority should tell you how to do this.

If your child has a statement of SEN, you can appeal to the SEND tribunal. 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.

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

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.

Frequently asked questions

There may be times when the school will ask you to collect your child at lunchtime. As a 'one off' this may resolve a specific incident. However, if you are being asked to do this on a regular basis, it should only be as part of an agreed arrangement to provide support for your child. The head teacher should tell you how many days they want your child to go home for lunch and what arrangements they intend to put in place to enable your child to stay for lunch in future.

If this is not provided then this means your child has been excluded from school at lunchtime, which should be recorded as a half day exclusion.

What happens next?

If the number of days adds up to five days exclusion (ten lunchtimes) or more then you can ask to meet the governors.

If you or your school are concerned about your child's behaviour, the school should arrange a meeting to draw up a plan that will detail the support your child needs to help them. This plan might be an individual education plan or a pastoral support plan.

The plan should include details of how your child will be helped to achieve targets that are agreed at the meeting. It should list people who will be involved and explain what everyone, including you and your child, will do. It should also include a date for reviewing the plan.

More information

See the GOV.UK school and college behaviour and attendance web page for more information.