6 January 2021
Internal investigations are important signifiers of how effective a school is in its sensitivity towards pupils, parents and staff. But how are they best managed? Vicky Wilson reports…
If you are a head, deputy head or designated safeguarding lead, there could be a number of scenarios where you are required to conduct an internal investigation at school. Examples include parental complaints, pupil behaviour incidents and employee grievances. As bursar or clerk to the governors you may be asked to be involved with or co-ordinate any of these processes. This article contains a best practice guide to ensure a fair and robust process is conducted.
Before you start
Firstly, identify the issue that requires investigation and determine whether there is a particular policy or procedure that applies. With a complaint from a parent, the Complaints Policy is usually the place to start. However, it is worth noting that for particular issues regarding admissions appeals, exclusions or safeguarding issues, other policies might apply instead. Check your policy documents and find the right track.
Secondly, ensure that the member of staff asked to investigate has the delegated power, authority and skills to undertake the process. In the instance of a formal parental complaint, the head might investigate and make a decision. In a pupil disciplinary case, the deputy head might investigate and report findings to the head, who will in turn use their power to determine the appropriate sanction to impose.
Consider whether there are any bespoke issues, such as safeguarding concerns, special educational needs or disabilities for which you may need to make adjustments, language barriers or other needs or sensitivities.
At this point, cast your mind forward a few steps in the process to ensure that the most appropriate members of staff or governors are involved at the correct time. Consider which members of staff would be involved if the decision is disputed, appealed or the matter is escalated.
Next, clarify the issue(s) and the scope of the investigation; what will be included in or excluded from the process. A clear brief will ensure the appropriate action is taken.
Make sure that any communication, both internal and external, is clear and documented in writing so that you have a paper trail of how the matter has been handled. Notes should be kept of all meetings and conversations that relate to the investigation process.
The investigator’s main role will be to obtain evidence and establish the facts so that a decision can be made. A thorough evidence gathering exercise will assist with the task of making findings of fact using the civil test “on the balance of probabilities”.
To structure the investigation process, map out the: who, what, where, when and how? For example:
- Who is involved and who else will you need to speak to? Who witnessed what happened?
- What happened? What are the key issues and what will each person add to the investigation process? What are the timescales involved?
- Where did the alleged incident or issues occur? Where is existing evidence held or stored?
- When will individual staff or pupils be available to give their version of events and in what order should any interviews take place?
- How long will the process take – this will depend on the nature and complexity of the issue and the number of people the investigator needs to speak to?
Creation of a chronology is an invaluable exercise to piece together the evidence and reveal the bigger picture. It will also help you identify gaps in the evidence assembled or demonstrate where evidence is corroborative.
Interviewing staff or witnesses needs careful consideration. A time and date needs to be arranged with sufficient notice and you will need to think about how much detail you provide in advance.
In terms of preparation, it is all about asking the right questions. Ensure that the conversation is well structured so that the necessary ground is covered. You can begin by asking open questions to get the background detail (e.g. “Please tell me more about what happened on this date”), but then hone in on the detail by asking direct and closed questions (eg “Did x mention this to you at the time?” or “How many times has this occurred?”).
“There are no express legal requirements and you must exercise your own judgment.”
If you are conducting interviews remotely via telephone or online, further consideration will need to be given to safe working practices and how the process is conducted. If you are speaking to pupils, they should be accompanied at their end by an adult, preferably a parent or guardian. There may be circumstances where it is appropriate to record the interview and this will usually require consent in advance from the relevant parties.
Considering the evidence
Evidence will come in a number of forms: database entries, email, word document, handwritten note, mobile phone content, online or on social media, voice recording, CCTV etc. It may also be incomplete or contradictory.
The investigator will need to collate the evidence and decide how best to deal with any data protection and/ or confidentiality issues arising. Consider whether you need to redact or anonymise any of the data – you may need to refer to the school’s Data Protection Policy or Privacy Notices here. Your school will also have systems and processes in place for record keeping and processing data, which need to be kept in mind.
Producing a report can also be a helpful step in the process in order to record the evidence considered, reasoning, extenuating circumstances or mitigating factors and, of course, the final decision. Any documentation could potentially be disclosable either in future internal processes, external proceedings or in the event of a data subject access request. So keep these documents factual and accurate insofar as possible.
Concluding the process
A decision letter will conclude the process and inform the affected parties of the outcome of the investigation. Depending on the process, there may be some compulsory elements to include, so check the policy document and include the required information on timescales, next steps or right to appeal the decision.
Ensure the final version is signed by the decision-maker and dated. Keep a copy for the school’s records and, if sending electronically, send as a PDF by email with a delivery and read receipt attached so that you have proof of sending and delivery. If it is your usual practice, you can also post a hard copy to the parents of the pupil concerned or the complainant.
If other members of staff are involved, consider who else will need to be provided with a copy of the letter and/or a summary of the decision reached.
Resulting action points may include disciplinary sanctions for pupils, staff disciplinary process if there has been a breach of the staff code of conduct, reporting to the head and/or the chair of governors, and potentially external reporting to regulators.
Keeping a record is important and the school’s data retention policy should indicate how long documents will need to be retained for – this will depend on the nature of the issue being considered. The requirement in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is that personal data should be kept for no longer than is necessary for the purpose(s) for which it is processed. If you can identify a valid reason for retaining particular types of information (and you record your reason), this is likely to satisfy the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). In some instances, there are strict legal requirements regarding how long particular documents must be kept. In other instances, there are no express legal requirements and you must exercise your own judgment in determining what is necessary for your school.
With internal school matters, we prefer to advise in the background and usually advise against legal representatives being present during the process.
When serious or complicated issues arise, it is best to seek expert professional advice as early as possible so that any procedural issues can be addressed along the way. This will strengthen the process so that the final decision can withstand potential future challenge.