More consistency needed in managing learner complaints in further education institutions

Complaints procedures in further education institutions are generally clearly documented and comprehensive, although there is too much inconsistency between institutions in how complaints are managed. Differences also exist between institutions in the way in which they define what constitutes a complaint and in the extent to which they provide information to learners about how to make a complaint. In the survey Estyn did not find any institution with a quality assurance system to ensure that complaints are handled to a consistent standard across the institution.

Ann Keane, Chief Inspector, says

“It is important that all learners have a voice and that colleges deal properly with any concerns that learners may have. While colleges recognise the need to have a mechanism to deal with learner complaints, there is too much inconsistency in how they deal with complaints across the sector. 

“Four years ago an NUS survey identified issues to do with student complaints in further education. There is also Welsh Government guidance that recommends specific improvements. My report highlights a series of actions for further education institutions to take to ensure that their complaints procedures are clear, comprehensive and implemented to a high standard across the sector.”

Inspectors found that all institutions provide some information to learners about their complaints procedures. However, this information is easily accessible on only 66% of institution websites. Only 87% of institutions make their policy and procedures available through the medium of Welsh.

Unclear definitions of what is and is not a complaint, means that very few institutions differentiate clearly between mundane issues and those of a more serious nature. However, most institutions state appropriately that they will deal with complaints about assessment outcomes separately from the normal complaints procedure. Although all institutions organise their complaints procedures differently, they all describe their procedures in similar ways which involves three or four stages in handling a complaint, including formal, informal and appeal stages. Most institutions produce regular summary reports on complaints for their managers and governors, but most of these focus too much on the volume of complaints rather than on the important messages about the quality of provision.

Around half of the institutions think there should be an external appeals body in Wales, with powers to review student complaints and their outcomes. However, several institutions think that they already deal well enough with complaints themselves without the need for such an external body. Other institutions mistakenly believe that either the Welsh Government, Estyn or the National Union of Students perform this function. Seventy three percent of institutions would like more guidance from the Welsh Government about how to improve learner complaints procedures.

The report contains recommendations for further education institutions and the Welsh Government. These include taking forward issues identified in by the NUS in their 2011 report on student complaints; requiring senior managers to check the rigour of complaint investigations; ensuring there are distinctions between low-level and serious complaints; and using all available evidence to analyse the quality of complaints policy and procedures, including using customer service style approaches to make sure that a learner’s experience when making a compliant is a positive one. In addition, Welsh Government should publish guidance to help institutions to develop their procedures; ensure the Learner Voice Wales survey adequately captures learners’ experiences of making complaints; and work with the sector to consider the feasibility of setting up an external complaints appeals body with appropriate powers for post-16 learners in Wales.

Notes to Editors:

About the report

Estyn’s report How well do further education institutions manage learner complaints? was commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government.

The evidence base of the report includes:

  • An online questionnaire completed by all 15 further education institutions in Wales
  • An online questionnaire completed by over 1200 leaners drawn from every further education institutions in Wales
  • Visits to eight further education institutions for interviews with managers, in-depth document reviews, and interviews with learners

Publication date

Thursday, 21 May, 2015