Beware the ombudsman

2nd October 2015 at 01:00

A 2014 report by the Respectme charity revealed that 30 per cent of pupils in Scotland had experienced bullying during the previous school year. And parents are increasingly turning to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) to complain about this issue.

The SPSO’s website confirms that the ombudsman can respond to complaints about schools. The law excludes “conduct, curriculum or discipline” from their remit, but they can investigate “whether the school applied policies and procedures properly, such as those on bullying”.

In the first half of 2015, the SPSO published six decisions that dealt with bullying. Half of these were upheld, at least in part, and there are valuable lessons for how schools handle complaints about bullying.

Incredibly, the recording of bullying was an issue in four of the decisions. It is important that incidents are recorded, and as soon as possible – parents of all children involved should be notified the same day.

Incidents should be noted on the relevant forms, where these exist. One school was commended for making reports of alleged bullying incidents, taking records of meetings with parents and creating an action plan to support the child.

Refer parents to the anti-bullying policy in your handbook. The school must follow its anti-bullying policies and ensure that the investigation process is known and understood by parents; full records of the investigation and its outcomes must be kept; and appropriate investigations need to be carried out, especially where allegations are serious – an assault, for example.

Where the complaint is about a school’s handling of bullying, it is important that the investigation is conducted in an independent and impartial way. In one case, the local authority appointed a retired schools inspector to investigate. A parent made a complaint about the former inspector having worked with the headteacher, but this was dismissed.

In another case, an investigation was deemed inadequate as it relied too heavily on interviews and assurances from the headteacher.

Those investigating must seek to verify the facts – for example, by checking against school records. They must provide evidence to support their decisions. This underlines the importance of ensuring that minutes of meetings are accurate and complete.

The SPSO cannot consider whether bullying has actually taken place, only whether policies and procedures have been followed. In one case, the school disagreed with a parent on whether her daughter was being bullied. The SPSO found that her concerns had been treated seriously and investigated properly.

Adopting and following appropriate procedures not only reduces the likelihood of a complaint to the SPSO being upheld but also minimises the chance of complaints being made in the first place.

Iain Nisbet is head of the education law unit at Govan Law Centre in Glasgow

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