Memorandum submitted by Tony Redmond, Local Government Ombudsman (CS 43)

 

 

I have read the Hansard record of the Committee's proceedings on 26 January. I thought it may be helpful if I elaborate on my contribution in the light of Members' subsequent comments. I hope this letter will clarify a number of aspects of the work of the Local Government Ombudsmen (LGO), and reassure the Committee that the process the LGO follow is rigorous, fair and challenging.

 

The Initial Process

 

All new complaints are channelled through our first contact centre in Coventry. Any complaint about breach of a parental or pupil guarantee will then be directed to the appropriate team in each of our three offices. These teams will be dedicated to handling complaints involving the internal management of schools and also children's issues more generally. The complaints will receive an initial assessment. A number of outcomes are possible at this early stage including the following:

 

If the matter complained about is clearly outside our jurisdiction, we will endeavour to signpost the complainant to another more appropriate avenue.

If the matter complained about is a 'whole school' issue, it will be a regulatory issue that we could refer to OFSTED.

If the injustice to the complainant is so small that it would not justify the use of public resources to pursue the matter, we would decide not to investigate the complaint.

Again we would signpost the complainant to a more appropriate body, if possible.

If there was a potential safeguarding issue, we would carry out a risk assessment and pass details on to the appropriate authorities.

If it appeared that the matter could best be resolved by informal conciliation or, with the agreement of the parties, by referral to a mediator, we have statutory power to arrange this[1]. If we had evidence that the complaint was 'vexatious' we could decide not to investigate.

 

On completion of this initial consideration of the complaint, we would allocate it to a specialist investigator. In urgent cases, the matter would be allocated quickly and its investigation expedited as far as practicable - similar to our practice in handling school admission complaints at present.

 

In my evidence to the Committee I did comment that some matters relating to teaching and curriculum might step outside the jurisdiction of the LGO. I believe this comment may have been misunderstood. I had in mind, for example, that teacher discipline would not be something that the LGO would investigate - these are matters for the Governing Body and the General Teaching Council for England, and not for the LGO.

 

In terms of curriculum, I am mindful of the general intention expressed in the Pupil and Parent Guarantees document to "create greater freedom for teachers to use their professional judgement and expertise to design the curriculum, tailoring teaching and learning to local circumstances and the needs of all the children in their care." While some aspects of the guarantees are framed as duties ("musts") others are clearly expressed as discretions ("shoulds"). Where there is discretion, there will be more than one way of fulfilling a guarantee. The wider the discretion afforded by the guarantee, the more difficult it will be for a breach of a guarantee to be established, unless there is good evidence that the school has not properly considered the terms of the guarantee in question. In the absence of such good evidence, the LGO will not have jurisdiction to investigate the matters complained about. It is not for the LGO to substitute his or her opinion for a judgement arrived at reasonably within the terms of the guarantee in question.

 

The Investigation Process

 

As I have mentioned, there will be dedicated teams of investigators in each of the LGO's offices. They will receive high quality training. While some of the more straightforward cases might be dealt with from the desk using telephone, email and texting, as well as correspondence, there will undoubtedly be many other cases where there will be direct contact with pupils, parents, school governors and staff etc. In anticipation of this, we will be engaging associates located across the country who will be available to make early contact with the complainant and/or the school so that we have a good understanding of the situation on the ground. By no means will this be a

desk-bound process.

 

Our aim will be, as in our current work, to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. If that means site visits, interviews and meetings, inspection of records and so on, that is what we will do. We do not take policy or procedural documents on face value; we may look to see, for example, whether these have been properly communicated and implemented, whether the relevant staff understand and apply them, and whether they meet the requirements of current standards and guidance.

 

Where more difficult or complex issues relating to teaching or curriculum arise in considering a complaint, the LGO also has power to obtain specialist expert advice from independent education professionals[2] including (but not only) from OFSTED. As I said in my evidence to the Committee, I am very aware of the need to ensure we have the expertise, experience and knowledge to be able to make judgements on such matters.

 

We would expect the governors' decision on the complaint we are investigating to be properly supported by an adequate audit trail. I confirm, however, that we are not concerned to add unreasonably to the records that schools should already maintain.

 

LGO recommendations

In cases where the LGO decide that a complaint is unjustified the complainant and the school will be informed and no further action will be required of the school.

 

Where we find a complaint to be justified, our recommendations may include action that we consider the school should take to remedy the injustice to pupil and/or parent and also action to prevent a recurrence of what went wrong in the particular case. Preventative action may involve recommending that the school revises its policies or procedures, or provides staff training, or makes an improvement to the educational provision offered to pupils. We would expect to be informed by the school of the changes it has made.

 

If we are not satisfied with a school's response we can require a Notice to be publicised, with the reputational risk to the school that this would involve. We could also take a further complaint from a pupil or parent to the effect that the recommendation had not been complied with; and we could communicate with OFSTED so that the non-compliance would inform their actions as regulator. The Secretary of State also has last resort powers to issue an enforceable direction.

 

I do not doubt that in these circumstances our recommendations will be effective and that they will support governors and head teachers in achieving improved outcomes for pupils and parents.

 

 

February 2010



[1] S.210(5) Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009

 

[2] S210(3) Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009