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Complain more often says new watchdog

In 12 months, only six cases have come before OFSTED's complaints adjudicator. Bibi Berki reveals the concerns behind Elaine Rassaby's first annual report.

ELAINE RASSABY has an unusual concern: too few complaints have come her way.

Appointed the first complaints adjudicator for the Office for Standards in Education a year ago, Ms Rassaby has been given only six to deal with - a surprisingly small number, she says, "given the vociferousness of OFSTED's critics".

Last week she published her first annual report as the adjudicator.

Ms Rassaby said she had expected a "bulge" of referrals following the publicity following her appointment in July 1998.

"But it seems to be operating differently," she told The TES. "I am not convinced that the number of complaints is a reflection of the dissatisfaction with OFSTED."

She said the time-consuming and labour-intensive nature of making a complaint might have been behind the low number.

But she said it could also have been due to lack of information about her wide remit. Her job was created because of concerns over the standard school inspections, but she can deal with all OFSTED inspections, from local education authorities to independent schools.

She feels that knowledge of the complaints procedures may not have spread beyond schools. Complaints may be raised in other contexts and she said: "I am concerned about the lack of information to potential complainants in these cases."

In the year to last July there were 4,520 school inspections, leading to 170 complaints to OFSTED, while 7,245 nursery inspections ended in 121 complaints.

But Ms Rassaby's work only begins when OFSTED's own procedures are exhausted.

The issue of jurisdiction remains one of her main concerns: in one case she was not given access to necessary papers because OFSTED had deemed that the case was not a complaint.

"I remain concerned that my office is dependent on OFSTED's agreement on matters of jurisdiction," said Ms Rassaby, who has previously said her role would be clearer if she had been appointed by the Secretary of State rather than by OFSTED.

The adjudicator's job is to review the handling of complaints, broker agreements "where possible" between OFSTED and complainants, and help the body to improve its own handling of complaints. She cannot alter the judgments made by registered or HM inspectors, order a re-inspection or alter an inspection report.

School standards minister Estelle Morris has promised to consider making the adjudicator's appointment the responsibility of the Department for Education and Employment.

The six cases referred to Ms Rassaby came from a variety of sources, ranging from a nursery proprietor to the director of a local education authority. Two were from the same complainant.

In four of the cases, she said OFSTED should have given the complaints more consideration, either by investigating the matter further or by giving the complainant a more helpful explanation.

OFSTED complied with her recommendations in all cases.

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