Complaints & investigations: Why they arise and what to do

Written by: Dave Verma | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Every school leader will have to handle complaints and oversee subsequent investigations. Expert Dave Verma offers some advice on handling the initial complaint and conducting a professional investigation...

An inevitable challenge of running a school will be having to handle (hopefully rare) complaints, allegations and grievances.

These can come via parents, Ofsted, teachers, current members of staff, former members of staff, and the children themselves. They can also arise from auditors and human resources.

Sometimes complaints are made in a timely, genuine and generally understandable fashion, at other times they can be strangely timed and may appear malicious. However, even malicious allegations can have significant truth behind them.

During my work as an independent investigator in the local government and schools sector, I often find that allegations have been festering away for an awfully long time and that the person/s making the allegation have not come forward simply because the time was not right.

They simply kept quiet until they themselves could take no more or until they had the (often long-awaited) opportunity to leave the setting. Sometimes people become motivated to come forward because there is a straw that breaks the camel’s back. For example, this can often be a breach in dignity at work, unfairness in recruitment and selection, or behaviours that have simply tipped people over – their resilience finally snapping, they can tolerate no more.

Sometimes it can be the case that the person/s holding critical information on allegations have themselves been subject to investigation or disciplinary action for a completely unrelated matter, for example sickness or even redundancy. This is often how cases involving serious allegations come to the fore – for example, in cases related to safeguarding, fraud and corruption and conflicts of interest. It can also be the case with regards to allegations of serious breaches of dignity at work, racism, bullying and harassment and other undesirable behaviours.

Handling the initial complaint

When you first receive notice of the complaint or allegation, as a school leader you must:

  • Maintain extreme confidentiality in the first instance.
  • Get advice on whistleblowing and seek to understand whether the allegations are coming to you in this way. If so, whistleblowers have rights and must be dealt with correctly and in accordance with the law (DBIS, 2015).
  • Log the complaint formally in accordance with your school policy (if you do not have a policy make it a priority to draft one).
  • Make sure a record of the complaint exists with your human resources lead, either at the school, council or academy senior leader level.
  • If there is a safeguarding angle, ensure that your LADO (local authority designated officer) is informed immediately.
  • Sometimes allegations cover a range of different areas, for example allegations can spill into concerns of fraud, corruption, conflicts of interest or nepotism. In the circumstances due consideration should be given to notifying auditors, the council’s anti-fraud section, governors, trustees in a MAT and possibly Ofsted.
  • Make sure that any evidence which is likely to be scrutinised is preserved, be this electronic, paper, CCTV, entry records or other relevant data.
  • Inform your chair of governors.

Once the relevant parties have had sight of the complaint, agree a way forward on who does what and in what order. This would all be enshrined within an investigation plan, containing timed, delegated actions for the investigator (see below).

This plan should maintain the independence of the investigator and is likely to include taking statements, gathering evidence and driving matters forward so that regular updates can be provided to all parties with an interest.

The investigation

The purpose of an investigation is to discern fact from rumour and supposition, while being evidence-led and following all lines of enquiry to and from the person under investigation. An investigation plan might look like this:

  • Introduction/background to allegations.
  • Summary of pertinent allegations which we plan to investigate.
  • Details of similar or pertinent allegations, concerns, disciplinaries and issues.
  • Investigation methodology.
  • Policies and key documentation to analyse.
  • Statements required.
  • Interviews required.
  • Documentation required.
  • Analysis required.
  • Resources needed for investigation.
  • Key timescales, milestones and deadlines (interim report and final report).
  • Key personnel involved.
  • Timings of briefings.
  • Confidentiality requirements.
  • Liaison with council and independent investigators/Ofsted.

The key dangers for the school leader during this initial process of investigation include the following:

  • Not acting in a timely fashion.
  • Causing undue stress to the people under investigation and also to those who have raised allegations.
  • Inability to recognise and protect whistleblowers.
  • Fostering a culture of fear and intimidation in which essential information simply does not come to the fore as it should.
  • Not obtaining proper human resources advice.
  • Not conducting a competent investigation.
  • Not being led by the evidence.
  • Not taking witness statements or securing evidence in a proper way.
  • Interviews being conducted in a way which is overly lengthy and where notes are never agreed.
  • Not following up on relevant lines of enquiry.
  • Lack of independence in the investigation and resultant hearings.
  • An inability to discern facts from rumour and supposition.
  • Flaws in gathering evidence; not following all lines to or from the allegation.
  • Not being able to write compelling reports; not presenting findings properly.

Some best practice approaches

Raise awareness with the senior leadership team and also your governors in terms of how investigations should be run. Enshrine this in a policy. Then train staff who may be conducting investigations or who may be on panels about how to carry out their duties properly.

Remember, when conducting an investigation, involve human resources at the earliest opportunity. Consider also appointing an independent investigator for complex, contentious cases or where independence will pay dividends later on. Always structure an investigation plan, agree this plan and avoid investigation creep.

More generally, engage with your staff and have independent staff surveys conducted every year. Ensure you have open channels of communication so problems and concerns can be flagged early.

You may also consider refreshing your whistleblowing policy. How else can you ensure that staff feel that they are listened to and can flag their concerns? Prevention is always better than cure.

Work to evaluate the key risks within your school: safeguarding, appointments, nepotism, authorisation of payments and appointment of contractors, etc.

  • Dave Verma is an independent investigator in the local government and schools sector. He holds a Master’s degree in information security and also mentors young people into work. He was voted international MBA mentor of the year in 2016. Visit

Further information & resources

DBIS: Whistleblowing: Guidance for employers and Code of Practice, March 2015:

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