From education to employment

Effective student complaint investigations – an essential guide

Students are more aware of their rights than ever before and do not hesitant in making formal complaints if they feel they have not been treated fairly by their education provider.

Most FE institutions do not possess the resources to fund full time complaint investigators and so the task invariably falls to hard-pressed staff who may not know where to start or who lack investigative experience.

Institutions should obviously encourage students and staff to resolve minor complaints at a local level without recourse to the formal procedure, wherever possible. Serious complaints will however need to be dealt with and resolved formally if students and stakeholders are to have faith in the complaint process.

Following recognised investigative protocols and gathering and preserving evidence fairly and efficiently is vital if investigator recommendations are to have any validity.

Making a decision about a serious complaint without an investigation would not only be  considered procedurally unfair but would also fly in the face of the cornerstone principle of natural justice. Fortunately, with a little forethought and planning and the right advice, investigations need not be too difficult, stressful or time consuming.

Here are the most important things for complaint investigators to consider.

Understand the Guiding Principles of a Complaint Investigation

There are three guiding principles which should inform a complaint investigation, these being: natural justice, responding to and investigating complaints without undue delay and procedural fairness. Investigators need to work with these concepts in mind throughout all the stages of the investigative process.

Make a Record of the Complaint

A complaint may arrive formally, informally or even anonymously. No matter how the complaint is presented, the person within the organisation with complaint handling responsibility should make a note and open a complaint file. It would be considered good practice to write, confirming receipt of the complaint and informing the complainant of the timescales within which they can expect a response or resolution.

Select the Correct Procedural Pathway Before Starting

Before appointing a complaint investigator it is vital to ensure that the complaint procedure is the correct procedural pathway to be taking. If the complaint is against an employee then it may be more appropriate to contact the human resources department to take advice on whether the disciplinary pathway might be more appropriate. Complaints which may relate to potential criminal offences may need to be referred, in the first instance, to the appropriate investigating authority e.g. police, Health and Safety Executive.

Appoint an Investigator

Once the complaint has been received and acknowledged an investigator should be appointed. This should be done without undue delay and whoever is appointed should be impartial and have no interest in the outcome of the complaint investigation. It is vital that the investigator is seen to be independent and impartial. Investigators should not pre-judge the outcome and should approach the task with an open mind. During the life of the investigation the investigator should not provide any indication of the likely outcome to anyone else involved in the case as this may give the impression that the complaint has been pre-judged.

Ensure Confidentiality for all Parties to the Complaint

Investigations should be conducted on a ‘need to know basis’ i.e. only the people who really need to know about the details of the complaint and subsequent investigation should be told about it. Confidentiality is also extremely important during the life of the complaint investigation as the investigator may uncover sensitive or personal information relating to one or more of the parties involved. Documentation should be kept securely during the life of an investigation.

Understand the Role of the Investigator and the Objective of an Investigation

The investigator’s role is to secure, gather and collate sufficient evidence to justify any corrective action the organisation subsequently takes. Some organisations may also require that the investigator makes the final decision whether to uphold or dismiss the complaint but this should not be done until the investigation has been completed. For serious complaints it is advisable for the investigator to summarise findings and decisions (if appropriate) in writing, perhaps in the form of a short report.

The objective of any investigation is to provide a sound evidential basis for any subsequent action the institution may wish to take whilst following a fair procedure

A key question for any investigator to ask themselves prior to commencing any investigation is:-

What can I reasonably be expected to achieve, given the time and resources available to me?

Work to the Appropriate Standard of Proof

It would seem logical to adopt the civil standard of proof for the purposes of a complaint investigation. This means that the investigator should be making a decision about whether to uphold or dismiss the complaint on the balance of probabilities.

Open a File and Make Sure Notes are Kept

Once the investigation file has been opened detailed notes should be kept of the investigation. These would include notes of meetings or interviews, telephone conversations and it is also a good idea to keep a copy of any emails sent and received as part of the investigation.

Understand the Different Types of Evidence You are Likely to Gather as an Investigator

During the life of a complaint investigation an investigator is likely to gather one or more of the following types of evidence.

Witness statements – a written account of a person’s version of events. What they saw said or did. Witness statements should be drafted in a logical, chronological and sequential manner. There is no set format for witness statements but organisations should adopt a consistent approach, perhaps by using a standard template. Witness statements are usually drafted in the first person and should include at the top the essential details, these being: name of witness, the witness’s relationship to the complaint or job title (e.g. student’s personal tutor), date, location and the complaint reference to which the statement pertains.

Documentary evidence – your notes, photographs, organisational documents (e.g. policies and procedures), course documentation, computer print-outs, registers, attendance sheets, even CCTV footage.

Real evidence – anything other than the above which you are able to touch or feel e.g. a chair, a weapon used in an assault etc. Real evidence is relatively rare in complaint investigation cases within the FE context.

Investigators commonly look for witness testimony often overlooking the other forms of evidence which may be more easily available, such as copies of correspondence (emails) or notes from meetings as well as cctv evidence. It is important to plan carefully at the outset of an investigation in order to identify likely sources of evidence and then to prioritise the gathering of the evidence

Make an Investigation Plan

An investigation plan should be drafted, containing a list of available evidence and a list of witnesses who may need to be interviewed.

Prioritise & Gather Evidence

Once a list has been made it is important to prioritise the evidence. Priority should be given to evidence which is likely to ‘perish’ e.g. documents which may be removed or cctv footage which is likely to be wiped. Even witnesses who may be going on long term sick leave or moving to another part of the country should be considered perishable! Secure the important evidence which is most likely to perish as a priority.

Interview the complainant

For serious complaint it will clearly be important to interview the complainant. Any original complaint documentation can also be used as evidence but it will usually be necessary to interview the complainant in more detail about the issues raised. Notes should be taken during the interview and consideration should be given to writing up these notes, perhaps in the form of a statement.

Interview witnesses

Interviewing the complainant is also likely to provide you with the names of other witnesses who may need to be interviewed. Wherever possible witnesses should be interviewed in a neutral environment (i.e. not in a crowded classroom or an open plan office) and, as with interviewing the complainant, notes should be taken and written up.

Signing and Agreement of Witness Statements

Once notes have been made investigators may wish to go away and write up a statement. If this is the case the statement should be taken back to the witness for signing. If statements are not being produced then ask the witness to sign the notes. This may mean you need to spend some deciphering them with the interviewee so ensure you are not in a rush to leave.

Collate Documentary Evidence

Documentary evidence should be gathered and wherever possible such documentation should be the original. Documents should be placed in the investigator’s file unless this is impractical, in which case a copy will suffice. Complaints relating to online conduct may need screen shots to be taken at the earliest available opportunity and likewise these should be placed on the investigation file. Copies of relevant emails should also be printed out and put on file. Text messages are being increasingly adduced as evidence, and again, copies may be needed. It is advisable to seek advice from your IT departments about how this can best be achieved.

Seizing of College Computers

Seizing an college computer will be a rare occurrence but it is feasible that this may need to be done (if the complaint relates to misuse of the college’s IT system, for example). If so seek advice from your IT department on how best to achieve this. Do not forget to seize portable storage devices which are college property too as these may also contain valuable evidence.

Check to See Whether CCTV Evidence is Available

Because of the nature of some complaints cctv evidence may be available of an incident. If so, there is no reason this cannot be gathered, considered and evaluated as part of the investigation. Make sure that you contact whoever is responsible for the system at the earliest opportunity as some recordings are routinely wiped after a short period of time.

Draft and Publish an Investigator’s Report with Clear Recommendations

There are two main ways in which a decision will be made post-investigation. Firstly the investigator may be charged with making and publishing a decision and secondly the decision may be made by somebody else within the organisation based upon the information contained in the investigator’s report. Whichever way, a report or document of some description should be drafted, summarising the process of the investigation and the evidence obtained. Copies of any statements, documents or notes should be attached to this document.


Following this simple advice can help investigators complete their investigations in an efficient fashion and will also ensure that decisions are made from a sound evidential base, ensuring fairness to all parties. Most competent investigators have benefited from some form of training prior to undertaking routine investigations and colleges should give serious consideration to having a pool of trained staff available for this important task.

Richard Payne is director of BSPS Training Consultancy Limited, which provides pre-designed and bespoke training solutions. He also runs half day courses for FE institutions entitled, ‘Investigating Student Complaints Effectively’ and ‘Investigating Student Misconduct Effectively’. For more information, contact course registrar Jules Rutherford

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