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Making a complaint

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Disability Rights UK Factsheet F47

1. Introduction

This factsheet explains how to complain if you receive poor or inadequate service.

It’s usually best to try to resolve complaints informally. If this is not possible, then use internal complaints procedures. If you’re still not satisfied with the result of your complaint, you can take it to an external organisation. 

2. Tips to remember

Try to resolve the problem informally by talking to relevant people in your college, university or workplace, for example, your tutor, the disability advisers, your adviser or supervisor. If this is not possible, ask for a copy of the complaints process.

Make sure you are clear about the stages you have to go through in the complaints procedure and the timescale for each stage.

Be clear and brief. Avoid writing really long letters. Make the complaint letter easy to read by using numbered lists and headings to highlight the key issues.

Keep a written record of your experience, including names of people you have dealt with and the dates of events.

Make photocopies of all relevant documents and any information that you send in support of your complaint.

Be clear about what you hope to achieve by complaining.

If you need advice about your complaint, there are a number of organisations you can contact, depending on the nature of your complaint.

  • Your local Citizens Advice Bureau
  • The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS)
  • Disability Law Service
  • Community Legal Service Direct, in England and Wales
  • Scottish Legal Aid Board, in Scotland
  • A solicitor.

You might find it useful to use an advocate to act on your behalf. An advocate can liaise with the relevant body or institution and may be able to represent you if you take an appeal to court. Some advocates will charge a fee but others are free of charge.

  • Some disability organisations offer advocacy services.
  • Sometimes, getting your local MP involved can add strength to your case.
  • If you’re a young person you could ask your careers adviser to help you make a complaint. 
  • In the case of a complaint about and Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) you can discuss reaching an agreement with a mediator. If you decide to go to an mediator the local authority has to take part in this.
  • You can access support from your local Information, Advice and Support (IAS) service and Independent Supporters. Independent Supporters can offer information to you so you are empowered to make the right decision when going through the EHC assessments.

3. Internal complaints

It’s usually best to try to resolve complaints informally first. If you’re thinking about making a complaint you should speak to the disability adviser or additional learning support (ALS) coordinator at your institution or another person such as:

  • your tutor or supervisor
  • your subject tutor, or
  • the Students’ Union representative, such as the Welfare Adviser or Disabled Students’ Representative.

These people should be able to help you resolve your complaint informally. If this is not possible they can tell you about the internal complaints procedure and give you information on other organisations that may be able to help.

You can also find out about the internal complaints procedure from your student handbook, the college or university website or directly from the college or university. They must make the complaints procedure available to you in your preferred format.

It may also be helpful to put your complaint in a letter to:

  • the principal, if you’re studying a Further Education (FE) course
  • the manager, if you’re studying at a private training college
  • the head of department or the chancellor of the university, if you’re studying a Higher Education (HE) course.

When you make a complaint, the institution must let you know they have received your complaint by a certain time specified in the complaints procedure.

If you are still not satisfied with the outcome of your complaint you can take it to the:

Local Authority (LA) - The LA has the responsibility to consider decisions made in relation to EHC needs assessments.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) can deal with complaints about any post-16 training provider, college or employer funded by them. . This includes providers delivering apprenticeships. A copy of the procedure for handling complaints is available on the gov.uk website at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/education-and-skills-funding....

The ESFA will not usually investigate complaints until the internal complaints procedure has been exhausted with the education provider. Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) - if you’re studying a higher education course.

External organisations do not normally consider complaints unless they have been through the internal complaints procedure.

4. Further education

England:  The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funds young learners between 16 and 19 years old, learners on apprenticeships and those in adult education. For young people with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, funding for providers will come through both the ESFA and the local authority. Wales: Department of Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS)

Scotland: Scottish Funding Council

Northern Ireland: Department for Employment and Learning.

Colleges must follow the guidelines of these agencies and make sure they are meeting the needs of disabled learners.

In England, if you have not been able to resolve your complaint with your college, training provider you can contact the ESFA. This includes learning providers delivering apprenticeships.  A copy of the ESFA procedures for handling complaints is available on the Gov.uk website at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/education-and-skills-funding-agency/about/complaints-procedure#complain-about-a-post-16-training-provider-college-or-employer-we-fund.

5. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)

Before the OIA can look at your complaint you will need to have exhausted the internal complaints procedure at your university. At the completion of the complaints procedure the course provider will give you a Completion of Procedures letter. You will need this letter for the OIA to consider your complaint.  Only in exceptional circumstances will the OIA look at a complaint where the internal complaints procedure has not been completed. You will need to explain why you do not have a Completion of Procedures letter. You can make a complaint to the OIA if you:

  • are registered as a student at a university in England and Wales on the OIA list which is available on their website www.oiahe.org.uk
  • are studying at another institution and one of the universities on the OIA list awards the qualification.

This service is free to students.

The type of complaints the OIA will consider include:

  • any final decision of the higher education institution
  • a service provided by the higher education institution
  • teaching and facilities
  • student accommodation
  • research supervision
  • discrimination - race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation or religious belief
  • bullying and harassment
  • placements
  • maladministration, procedural irregularities, unfair practices
  • disciplinary matters, including plagiarism
  • Fitness to practise issues

The OIA will not consider complaints about:

  • a matter of academic judgement
  • a matter that is or has been the subject of court proceedings
  • a student employment matter
  • admission to a higher education institution.

If you want the OIA to consider your complaint you must complete the OIA Complaint Form and it must be received within 12 months of the date of the Completion of Procedures letter. The form is available on the OIA website or can be sent to you. 

Once the OIA receives the complaint they will check to see if it is something they can deal with and has been received within the set timescale.

The complaint is allocated to a case-handler who contacts you and the university. The OIA will normally send a copy of the Complaint Form and the information provided by you to the university. The merits of the case are then considered.

The case-handler might:

  • Try to settle or mediate the complaint
  • Ask the university for its comments on the complaint
  • Ask the university or you for more information
  • Issue a Complaint Outcome in respect of the complaint
  • Send you information to comment on
  • Contact you to discuss their complaint and whether the desired outcome is achievable

Comments made and documents submitted by either the university or you during the review will be sent to one another. When the case-handler is satisfied that he or she has all the information necessary, and there is no prospect that the complaint can be resolved without the need to issue a decision, they will issue a Complaint Outcome. You and the university will then have the opportunity to comment on the Complaint Outcome if you wish to do so. Any comments received will be considered by a member of the OIA approval team, who will determine whether the comments materially affect the outcome of the review. If they do, then a second Complaint Outcome will normally be issued. This will then become the OIA Final Decision.

If no comments are received, the OIA will write to confirm that the Complaint Outcome is their Final Decision.

The case-handler will decide if your complaint is justified. If it is completely or partly justified they can recommend that the college or university take action - to do something better or stop doing something wrong. The university is expected to comply with the formal decision and any recommendations. The OIA can also make suggestions, observations or comments on good practice.

If you take a complaint of disability discrimination to the OIA then the time limit for taking legal action may be extended. However, it’s best to take legal advice before suspending any action. In considering issues relating to discrimination the OIA does not investigate or make legal findings in the same way as a court. However, the OIA will refer to law and guidance on discrimination to form an opinion as to good practice and decide whether the university has acted fairly.

For more information about taking a complaint to the OIA, contact the OIA directly.

In Scotland you can complain to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) www.spso.org.uk/college-or-university-complaints

6. Examinations

Internal exams
If you did not get the right exam arrangements or the disability-related support that was set out in your needs assessment, you can make a complaint to the institution. For more information go to the internal complaints section.

External exams
Sometimes exams, such as A levels, are set by an external examination awarding body, for example, AQA, Edexcel or City and Guilds. If you have a complaint about the exams you took, you should first make an appeal through your school or college to the relevant examination awarding body. If this does not resolve the situation, you can make an appeal directly to the awarding body.

Professional or trade qualifications
Sometimes professional or trade organisations such as the Law Society, the General Medical Council, or CORGI, design qualifications that test people’s ability to meet the competencies needed for that profession. If you have a complaint about the professional exams you took, you should first make an appeal through your institution to the professional or trade organisation awarding the qualification. If this does not resolve the situation, you can make an appeal directly to the organisation.

7. Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs)

If you think that your DSA needs assessment report does not address all your disability-related study needs, you can contact the assessment centre and ask them how to appeal. If they are unable to re-assess you or are not willing to change the assessment report, you can ask your Student Finance company for further advice.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance Quality Assurance Group (DSA-QAG) may be able to investigate if the centre is a registered DSA-QAG member not fulfilling the criteria in their Quality Assurance Framework. However they won't routinely look at individual assessment reports. More information about DSA-QAG’s complaint procedures can be found at http://www.dsa-qag.org.uk/Footer-Menu/complaints.html.

If you are unhappy about the way in which your Student Finance company has administered the DSA then you can follow their complaints procedure. Complaints about the Student Loan Company (SLC) can sometimes be settled quickly and easily by telephoning them and speaking to one of their advisers. If the adviser is unable to resolve your complaint, you can follow the formal complaints procedure. You can make a formal complaint by telephone, post, an email to customer_complaints@slc.co.uk or by completing the form available on the SLC website. You should quote your Customer Reference Number in all correspondence. For security reasons, do not include any bank details in your email.

The SLC will acknowledge receipt of your complaint within five working days and a team of investigators will look at your complaint and respond within 15 working days. If you are still unhappy with the outcome of your complaint then you can ask for your complaint to be referred to an Independent Assessor. You can find out more about making a complaint to the Student Loans Company in the leaflet How to Make a complaint http://www.slc.co.uk/media/5033/slc_complaints_2017_en_d.pdf

If your complaint is about your college or university’s implementation of your DSAs you should follow the institution’s internal complaints procedure. See page 3 for more information.

8. Education, Health and Care Plans

The main options for resolving problems if you are unhappy with your Education, Health and Care Plan are:

  • Appeal against the decision or follow the formal complaints process
  • Local Government Ombudsman. For more see below.
  • Mediation

Mediation is a voluntary process which you can use if you cannot reach an agreement with your local authority. Parents and young people must consider mediation services prior to lodging a formal appeal to a First-tier Tribunal. This does not mean you can’t appeal unless you have gone through the mediation process, only that you have considered it as a possible way of resolving your issue. After doing so you will be issued with a certificate that allows you to go straight to a Tribunal or voluntarily opt to take part in mediation.

  • Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal

This is a formal hearing process, the decisions from which are legally binding. Appeals to Tribunals have to be lodged within 2 months of the local authority’s decision being appealed or one month from receiving the certificate following mediation. You can complain about:

  • Refusal to agree to assess for a EHCP
  • Having assessed, refusal to issue a formal plan
  • Description of special education needs
  • Description of or level of appropriate services or provision needed
  • Refusal to reassess, or to amend or replace elements of a plan when requested
  • Decision to end a formal plan
  • Named school, college or educational institution
  • Fact that no school has been names or that only a type has been named

You do not have to consider mediation prior to lodging an appeal in the last two points above.

9. Local Government Departments

Social Services
You can make a complaint to your social services department, or social work department in Scotland, if they have agreed to fund your personal care needs while you are studying but you think your needs are not being met or you are unhappy with the service you are getting. Each social services department has its own procedure. You can get a copy of their complaints policy and procedures by contacting the department directly.

Local Government Ombudsman
The Local Government Ombudsman is a free, independent and impartial service that investigates complaints against local authorities where the complaint has not been resolved by the local authority’s complaints procedures. The Ombudsman looks at the process by which the local authority decisions were made and whether there has been a service failure.

Common examples of service failure are:

  • delay
  • poor record keeping
  • failure to take action
  • failure to follow procedures or the law
  • giving out misleading information
  • failure to investigate

The Ombudsman can investigate complaints about Education Health and Care (EHC) Plans. The Ombudsman is concerned with process, not merits of decisions which have been properly taken. It looks at the decision-making process and the delivery of provision set out in the EHC plans. The Ombudsman does not investigate matters which can be appealed to the Tribunal, such as a decision to not carry out an EHC assessment. The Ombudsman can investigate complaints that the special educational provision set out in EHC plans is not being delivered. You can complain online, by phone or by post. For more information see: www.lgo.org.uk

If you live in Scotland you should contact the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. If you live in Wales you should contact the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

10. Jobcentre Plus

Before you make a complaint ask your local office for written information on standards and level of service you can expect when dealing with Jobcentre Plus. It should also explain how you can make a complaint.

You should explain what has happened, how this has affected you and what you want to happen to put things right. Jobcentre Plus usually try to resolve the complaint over the phone or deal with your complaint within 15 days.

If you are unhappy with the response your complaint is passed to a Complaints Resolution Manager who will contact you by telephone within 48 hours of receiving your complaint and keep you updated about its progress. Your complaint should be dealt with within 15 days.

If you are still unhappy after the Complaints Resolution Manager has looked at your complaint, your complaint can go to a senior manager. You should have a response within 15 days of the senior manager receiving your complaint.

If you have been through all the complaints stages and remain unsatisfied with the response you can ask the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) to look at your complaint. You must contact them within six months of getting the final response from the DWP.  

If you are on a Jobcentre Plus scheme such as Work Programme (stopped taking new participants in April 2017) or Work Choice, you should make a complaint to the provider. If you are not satisfied that the matter has been resolved you should then follow the Jobcentre Plus complaints procedures. 

11. Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

This is a free independent and impartial service that investigates complaints about government departments, agencies and some public bodies. The Ombudsman can look into complaints about NHS organisations such as GP’s, dentists or NHS hospitals. The Ombudsman can also look into complaints about service from government departments such as Jobcentre Plus. 

You should always try to settle your complaint with the department or agency involved. However, if this is not possible, you can ask your MP to send your complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can look at your complaint if there has been injustice or hardship because an organisation has not acted properly or fairly or has given you a poor service and not put things right.

The Ombudsman can also work jointly with the Local Government Ombudsman in suitable cases where complaints may come under the legal control of more than one Ombudsman.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman helpline can tell more about the service.

12. Employment

If you have been discriminated against at work or when you applied for a job you should raise the issue by contacting the HR or personnel department. If this doesn’t work you can write a formal letter of complaint to your employer.

Disability Rights UK has some template complaint letters on its Right to Participate project pages at http://righttoparticipate.org/resources.

Before taking a current or former employer to an employment tribunal, you must first attempt what is termed ‘early conciliation’. Early conciliation is a service delivered by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), a publicly funded but independent organisation. Engaging early conciliation can reduce the stress and anxiety caused by taking a claim to a tribunal. If engaged within its own time limit (also three months less one day), early conciliation extends the time period for taking action via an employment tribunal if you need to take it that far.

If you are still not satisfied with your employer’s response, you should contact the Employment Tribunal Service.

13. The Equality Act (2010)

As well as supporting the rights of disabled students by giving greater legal protection against discrimination, the Equality Act emphasises the legal duty on education providers, employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments so disabled people can take part in education, use services and work.

You can find out more about the Equality Act from Disability Rights UK’s factsheet Understanding the Equality Act: information for disabled students. This covers both education and employment. You have the right to be treated fairly and anyone who discriminates against you is breaking the law.

Disability Rights UK has an introductory animation on the Equality Act at http://righttoparticipate.org.

Education provider

If you have been discriminated against you can take legal action. To do this you must take your complaint to court within six months of the date when alleged discrimination took place. If you take your case to the OIA you may be allowed longer to take your claim to court but you should seek legal advice about this first.

Examinations

Examining bodies have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to examinations so that they are accessible to disabled students. Examining bodies must follow the Code of Practice published by the EHRC and the regulations and guidance set by the Joint Council for General Qualifications (JCQ) or Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which should be in line with the Code.

However with general qualifications such as A-Levels, the regulator (for example Ofqual) might determine that part of the qualification should not be subject to a reasonable adjustment. This is designed to protect the ‘integrity of the qualification.’ In doing this the regulator must consult with organisations representing disabled people and publish their reasoning.

Professional and Trade organisation that set professional exams also have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments.

Employer

You should raise the issue through your line manager or by contacting HR. If you are a member of a trade union, you can ask them for advice. Ask for a copy of your employer’s grievance procedure and follow it.

If you are unable to resolve your complaint with your employer, you can ask Acas for advice through their Early Conciliation process.

If mediation is unsuccessful, you may decide to take legal action. You can take complaints about employment to an Employment Tribunal. If you go to mediation, the time limit for taking legal action is extended. You must register these complaints within 3 months of the date the alleged discrimination took place. If you win a case at tribunal they can make a declaration of rights, award financial compensation or a recommendation for action to put right the wrong.

14. Useful Publications and advice

For further information on the support that is available for disabled students, please contact our Disabled Students Helpline - 0330 995 0414.

We also produce a range of education factsheets covering these subjects and frequently asked questions which you can access through the education and skills section of our website at disabilityrightsuk.org.

Access Arrangements, Reasonable Adjustments and Special Consideration

Published by the Joint Council for General Qualifications Website: www.jcq.org.uk

Access to assessment and qualifications

Published by City and Guilds

Website: www.cityandguilds.com

Guidance on Assessment Arrangements for Candidates with Disabilities and / or Additional Support Needs

Published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)

Website: www.sqa.org.uk

How to make a complaint

Published by the Student Loans Company

Website: http://www.slc.co.uk/media/5033/slc_complaints_2017_en_d.pdf   

Jobcentre Plus: Our service standards

Published by Jobcentre Plus

Website: www.gov.uk/government/publications/about-the-dwp-our-service-standards-leaflet

What equality law means for you as a student in further or higher education

Published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

Website: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/what-equality-law-means-you-student-further-or-higher-education

15. Useful Organisations

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

Website: www.acas.org.uk

Acas aims to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations, they provide free initial advice on employment queries in England, Scotland and Wales

Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB)

Website: www.citizensadvice.org.uk

You can search for your local CAB by town or postcode on the national website. They are also listed in local telephone directories.

Community Legal Advice

Community Legal Advice is a network of Legal Services Commission funded organisations and advice providers that provide and promote civil legal aid services. You can search for your local office at:

http://find-legal-advice.justice.gov.uk/

Disability Law Service

Website: www.dls.org.uk

Free legal advice for disabled people and their families / carers throughout Britain.

Education and Skills Funding Agency

Website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/education-and-skills-funding-agency

Employment Tribunal Service

Website: www.gov.uk/employment-tribunals

Employment Tribunals are legal bodies that deal with employment rights disputes between employers and employees.

Equality and Human Rights Commission England, Scotland and Wales

Website: www.equalityhumanrights.com

Produces government information booklets on equality and human rights issues

Independent Case Examiner

Website: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/independent-case-examiner

The role of the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) is to examine complaints made about government agencies including Jobcentre Plus and most Work Provider services.

The Law Centres Network

Website: www.lawcentres.org.uk

National network of Law Centres which can offer legal advice, casework and representation. You can find your local Centre at www.lawcentres.org.uk/i-am-looking-for-advice.

Lead Scotland

Website: www.lead.org.uk

Organisation enabling disabled adults and carers to access inclusive learning opportunities in Scotland. Lead also runs an information and advice service for disabled students in Scotland.

Local Government Ombudsman

Website: www.lgo.org.uk

Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)

Website: www.oiahe.org.uk

Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual)

Website: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofqual

Ofqual is the official regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland. Information about how to appeal or complain about exams results is available at:

www.gov.uk/appeal-exam-results-for-schools-colleges-and-private-candidates

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Website: www.ombudsman.org.uk

Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

Website: www.ombudsman-wales.org.uk

Investigates complaints about local government and public services in Wales.

Scope helpline

Web: www.scope.org.uk/support/disabled-people/local/about

The Scope helpline (0808 800 3333) can refer you to local DPOs who provide information and advice and it has an online services directory.

Scottish Legal Aid Board

Website: www.slab.org.uk

The Board decides who can receive Legal Aid in Scotland. The helpline can give you more information about Legal Aid and help you find a Legal Aid Solicitor but cannot give legal advice.

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Website: www.spso.org.uk

Investigates complaints in Scotland about local and central government, the National Health Service and housing associations.

Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS)

Website: www.saas.gov.uk. Email through the website by selecting an enquiry subject and completing an online form.

SAAS is the awarding authority in Scotland.

Student Loans Company

Website: www.slc.co.uk

Trades Union Congress (TUC)

Website: www.tuc.org.uk

21 September 2018

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