84% of Ombudsman complaints about Education and Children’s Services upheld

Once again, families’ complaints about English councils’ education and children’s services were overwhelmingly upheld by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO). In its 2022-23 annual review, the LGSCO upheld 84% of the 1,263 detailed investigations into complaints about councils’ provision and complaint responses. That’s up from 77% the previous year, with a rise in initial complaints from 3,145 to 3,642.

These include complaints about Education Health and Care processes, SEND provision, school transport, admissions, among others. Education and Children’s Services are the most complained about area of the Ombudsman’s work, which includes other public services such as adult social care and housing.

Ombudsman complaints received 21/22: 3145, 22/23 3642. Complaints upheld 21/22: 77%, 22/23: 84%

Education and Children’s Services complaints made up just 17% of the complaints the Ombudsman received in its first report in 2014. Almost a decade later that’s risen to almost a quarter (24%).

“We continue to find the highest proportion of fault in complaints about Education and Children’s Services, and they remain some of our most high-profile cases, featuring in more than half of our public interest reports. The themes of these reports are all too familiar – failure to properly provide for Special Educational Needs and Education, Health and Care plans are common features. While we are aware of the challenges authorities face, at the heart of many of these complaints are children and young people going without the support they are entitled to, and we will continue to hold authorities to account for what they are required to provide.”

Paul Najsarek Interim Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

In the last year, the LGSCO published 21 detailed reports, where council decision-making or response was particularly flawed. These reports are aimed at educating LAs about avoiding poor practice, but it’s not clear how many take any notice of them – because cases published every week show little learning seems to be happening.

What is the LGSCO?

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) remedies individual injustice and, it says, by sharing the learning from the complaints it investigates, aims to improve local public, and adult social care, services.  

You can read in our article here how the Ombudsman works and when you can complain. You do need to have gone through your council’s own complaints system, and the Ombudsman won’t look at a complaint about a case currently going through the SEND Tribunal. Remedies include apologies, reimbursement of fees and reassessments for services that should have been provided. You won’t get a massive amount in compensation for time taken or distress caused- the Ombudsman tends to offer more token amounts.

However, the Ombusdsman has previously identifieddefinite gaps in redress” with no jurisdiction to investigate schools’ delivery of SEND provision, leaving thousands of families with nowhere to turn, especially when a child doesn’t have an EHCP.

Neither can the LGSCO investigate unresolved complaints about a school’s head teacher and its governing body including off-rolling of pupils with SEND. It used to be able to but the legislation was repealed, despite a DfE evaluation finding that it had “helped to improve local education services by promoting good practice.”

And if you think the SEND Improvement Plan is going to beef up the Ombudsman’s role to support accountability, you would be wrong. The Ombudsman gets a single mention:

“To make it clearer for families how SEND-related concerns and complaints should be dealt with, we will amend the SEND Code of Practice so that it is clearer about who is responsible for resolving concerns. We will set out the routes of escalation if families remain unhappy with the way their concerns have been addressed. To inform this, we will look at what the role of the LGSCO, who consider complaints against local authorities, should be in a reformed SEND system.” SiP Chapter 5.16

It's even less clear for complaints about Academies. The 2023 Academies Regulation and Commissioning Review pledged to demystify this and remove the duplication of processes, but as this was part of the now defunct Schools’ Bill, what’s happening is uncertain.

Compliance and learning from mistakes

The Ombudsman finds that although councils comply with their recommendations for improvements almost all of the time (99.3%), they often don’t learn from mistakes to improve practice in the long term, or review where they are going wrong as a whole.

“We know councils face huge challenges, so it is more important than ever for them to focus on the getting the basics right in services for residents and handling complaints effectively. Although local authorities often get things right, we frequently find councils repeating the same mistakes, ploughing ahead and not taking a step back to see the bigger picture.

Paul Najsarek, Interim Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

Indeed, given that the same councils are pulled up on the same injustices month after month, year after year, it’s debatable if any learning is occurring. Most parents find a standard LA tactic is delay, delay, delay, often from the very first request for a service assessment, so it’s not surprising the Ombudsman highlighted a particular problem of communication when handling complaints and liaising with the Ombudsman itself. After all, the slower you go, the longer you have before being held to account and the longer you have before having to fund either the required assessment or service or paying an often pitiful fine to the family you have wronged.

Let’s remember that these services are not “nice to haves”. They are statutory services—especially vital for disabled children—that councils are obliged to provide by law and that are funded by you, the taxpayer.

Where are most complaints from?

Clickable links on Page 7 of the report

South East of England councils make up the largest proportion of Ombudsman complaints about children and education at 33%. In London, just 12% of complaints were about children and education. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that these areas are doing it better, just that this is where more parents are empowered or feel able to act.

The LGSCO said it wasn’t unusual for its investigations to uncover councils’ poor complaint handling practices such as timeliness of processing complaints, an inappropriate use of statutory children’s complaints, as well as a lack of signposting to the Ombudsman itself. This means as well as struggling to get the right support for their children, families may not be told that they can escalate a complaint, or their complaint (if they have the energy to make one in the first place) takes so long they may given up chasing it.

Is it really justice though?

Because of websites like SNJ, IPSEA, and others, many more parents are now better informed to advocate for their child. They are often members of Facebook groups about EHCPs and SEND where they can find peer support—though we would always advise caution when taking legal advice (paid or otherwise) from anyone without the necessary legal and advocacy training and regulation.

Poor advice or misunderstood online research can mean parents often waste time complaining to the LGSCO over something it has no jurisdiction over. Again, our article, “The ABC of the LGSCO” from the Ombudsman’s office itself explains what it can investigate and when. Its own website also offers comprehensive advice. So before firing off a complaint, take the time to read the guides and some previous decisions.

Even if a case is right for the LGSCO, a family will already have endured a lengthy, frustrating, time-consuming and ultimately, futile, complaint process with the council. All the while, a child may be left without the right education, transport, or indeed, any provision at all. If you do have your complaint upheld, the redress may compensate what you’ve spent, but financial compensation is paltry considering the toll on your time, energy and mental health.

But what else can you do? If the SEND Tribunal isn’t an appropriate avenue, a Judicial review may be possible. You can of course write to your local councillor and/or MP, and if they are of a mind to intervene you may be lucky. You can also try the council’s Monitoring Officer, though you may get an underwhelming response.

But the most powerful thing you can do is arm yourself with the law, document everything including dates and times of contact, follow up any phone calls with confirmatory emails of what was discussed, seek reliable legal advice, always maintain polite but persistent communication (even if you want to rip their heads off, because they will use any expression of anger against you), use peer support groups to stay strong. Most of all, keep going on the most appropriate route until you get the best justice for your child that you can.

You can check out your own area’s 2022/23 Ombudsman complaints record here but note, it doesn’t break down the categories of complaints so may be of limited value. You can see in the spreadsheet downloads on this page, the number of complaints in total and by category per LA, and the number upheld. However, the site does offer an history of all decisions in all areas that you can look through. Read the LGSCO annual review here

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Tania Tirraoro
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