My concerns about the current operation of the College’s Complaints Policy

(Post made at 1957 BST on 15 Sep 2017 in a personal capacity.  Please see here for important background and disclosure of interests).  

In my opinion, based on my recent experience, there are many things about the current operation of the Bournemouth and Poole College’s Complaints Policy that are inconsistent with good practice. Here are some of them:

The independent investigator appointed (and paid, although this is itself is not unusual) by the College objected to my taking a netbook (a small computer) to my first meeting with her, saying it made her feel uncomfortable, and there was no need for me to take notes because a notetaker from the College was present. I explained that I wanted to be able to refer to correspondence, and to take my own notes.  She insisted that she would prefer me not to. I therefore agreed to close the netbook. Soon in the meeting she asked me questions that I needed to refer to correspondence to answer, so I asked (and was granted permission) to temporarily open the netbook.  Towards the end of the meeting, I wanted to make a note of some action points that were down to me as a result of the meeting, so again I asked (and was granted permission) to write them down in my netbook. I said it was irregular that I was not allowed to take my own notes, in the way that I have done throughout my career to date, including meetings with senior lawyers, and in sensitive discussions.

The other complainant (my wife) had presented a detailed written statement to her first meeting with the investigator. (Her complaint and mine were being treated by the College as a joint complaint and were being investigated by the same investigator, albeit with separate meetings).

In both cases, the draft notes taken by the College notetaker (which I assume were reviewed by the investigator) contained some errors (including the name of the organisations).  The minutes of the two meetings that my wife held with the investigator were put forward as her (my wife’s) statement, whereas in reality they were just minutes of meetings in which a series of questions were asked, often (as happens in meetings) in a not particularly logical order, and contained far less information than my wife had provided in her initial written statement.  The investigator tried to insist that the meeting notes formed my wife’s statement, but my wife (rightly in my view) signed that these were just minutes of the meetings held, and her view was that her initial document formed her statement.

One of the action points from the first meeting was that I should provide more details of my complaint about various actions and inactions by the College.  When I produced these at the second meeting (which I did not take my netbook to), the investigator expressed surprise and said that the scope of the complaint had been widened exponentially.  I said it had been only been widened from 8 pages to 11 pages, which was hardly exponential.  She expressed doubt as to whether the extra items could be included in the complaint, I pointed out that the College Principal had written to me stating that these items would be investigated as part of my complaint.  The investigator insisted that I must agree to keep all discussions related to the investigation confidential. I did not agree, because this was information that I was supplying to the College (no information was being supplied to me by the investigator), and of my concern that this could be used to silence any criticism of the process. I also pointed out that the College’s Complaints Policy made no mention of any requirement for participants to sign a confidentiality agreement.  The investigator said this was usual practice, I again pointed out that the College policy made no mention of this, and that such clauses (which amount to “gagging clauses”) were not part of the complaints process of professional bodies that I was aware of for instance. At this point the meeting was adjourned because the investigator insisted she could not proceed until this had been resolved.

The College then wrote to me saying that the extra items would *not* be investigated.  I queried this, pointing out a) that the College Principal had written to me saying that they would be (“Dear Mr Lee, these matters will be included in the investigation into your complaint. I understand someone will be contacting you in connection with this by the end of this week.”, email of 8 June 2017 to me in the comment to this post), and that also that I had pointed out during the first meeting with the investigator that I would be including in my complaint the actions of the College with regard to giving incorrect information in Freedom of Information responses, and with regard to what in my opinion amounted to inadequate supervision of the way the Centre for Wessex Young Musicians was being managed.

A reply came from the College insisting that these items would *not* be investigated.
I was still in discussions with the investigator (via the College) about agreeing the minutes of the first meeting and about their insistence on my signing a confidentiality agreement, and I was still supplying them with contact details of several witnesses who had agreed to confirm that I had quoted them accurately in my complaint, when to my great surprise (and that of the other complainant), I received a letter from the investigator saying that the investigation had concluded, and that my complaints had not been upheld because no witnesses had come forward to support my complaint, and that the College had stated that it would not consider any appeal to this decision. It also stated that any further correspondence was to be addressed to the College.  The investigator also stated that email correspondence (that I had produced as evidence in my complaint) was unreliable because the writers’ body language could not be seen.

As can be seen in this post including the comment below it, I wrote to the College protesting about the irregularities in the process, in particular about the investigator’s statement that no witnesses had come forward.  Yet the College Principal wrote back saying the matter was closed, and that she would not answer any further correspondence, nor would she forward my concerns to the College Board despite my asking her to.

So in summary, we have a situation where:

  1. The College/investigator and College selected what they wanted to be investigated. The College has refused (by the Principal’s email saying that they will not answer any further correspondence) to consider the other items in any separate complaint.  This seems contrary to the College’s Complaints Policy.
  2. They ignored a written confirmation by the Principal that these extra concerns would be investigated as part of the complaint.
  3. The investigation process seems open to error, in that the complainant is pressured not to take notes, yet the notes taken by the College and investigator contained errors.
  4. The process of pressuring a complainant to accept minutes of meetings (essentially a series of not necessarily logically ordered questions and answers) as their statement, as opposed to a carefully considered written statement provided again seems open to possible cherry picking of evidence. Also, one witness’s “statement” could appear more logical/credible than another’s, merely because of the order in which questions were asked, and which questions were asked.  
  5. All parties (complainant, witnesses, person complained about) are pressured to sign a confidentiality agreement.  This is NOT mentioned in the College’s Complaints Policy, and, contrary to what the investigator told me, this is not a necessary part of a complaints process because many other complaints processes don’t require this.  
  6. The investigation was closed without any notice to me, while I understood it was still going on, and the College/investigator had NOT contacted several witnesses who had agreed to be contacted and whose details I had supplied.
  7. The investigator seems to have ignored the written evidence I had supplied which quoted directly from emails.  
  8. Her statement that email evidence is unreliable because body language cannot be ascertained seems extraordinary/very irregular.  Presumably she would equally disregard letters or *any* written evidence.  To my knowledge, courts of law do not disregard letters, emails or written evidence as unreliable – on the contrary. 
  9. The effect of the College’s practice in 5. above. poses the danger that in the event of things going materially wrong in a complaint investigation, then no one can speak about it.  
  10. I think such a policy is very far from best practice. (Theoretically, it could lead to a situation where the answer to any management problem could be for anyone at all to complain, invoke the complaint procedure, and then even if the outcome is very unsatisfactory, no one can talk about it any more).  I think such a policy is likely to inhibit people (staff, parents or pupils) from making legitimate complaints
If I had agreed to 5. above, I would not be able to air my concerns here.  As it is, I feel duty bound to do so, despite what I regard as unreasonable threats of legal action by the College (see the Principal’s email in the comment to this post), because I have a responsibility to speak out when I have reasonable grounds to believe that things are not right.
In my opinion, the College does itself (and its students, staff and Board) a disservice by threatening the messenger when as I believe, the concerns I have raised are legitimate and ought to be taken seriously, rather than brushed aside.  I hope the College Board (who the Principal has refused to pass my concerns to) will hear about this and improve things.

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