Parental complaints: How to respond and resolve problems

Written by: Nabil Dance | Published:
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What is the best approach to handling written complaints from parents? What are the common mistakes that primary schools make during the complaints procedure? Nabil Dance provides a concise analysis and some practical tips on how we can respond effectively


The majority of my work as an educational lawyer consisted of advising parents who were involved in a complaint against their child’s school or local authority.

Most of these complaints had legal merit and it became a matter of proving that the school, or local authority, had broken the law. Experience of advising schools helped me to understand both sides of the table.

It was difficult not to notice certain patterns demonstrated by primary schools over the years with bad habits that undermined the school’s response and overall strategic position.

Many of these habits gave an advantage to the parental complaint and in some instances arguably damaged the child’s education.


What the law says

All types of school are required by law to establish a complaints procedure.

Plan, draft, finalise, adopt, and review a strong complaints procedure with substance. This provides an opportunity to adequately protect the school, staff, parents, and pupils. I have personally viewed procedures that are a single page in length, which is simply not enough.

The Department for Education and Education and Skills Funding Agency provide excellent practical guidance to state maintained schools, academies, and independent schools on how to tackle complaints (DfE, 2016; EFSA, 2014).

In particular, the guidance for state maintained schools provides best practice advice, a model complaints procedure, and a model policy for managing serial and unreasonable complaints.


Strategy

An absolute priority should be resolving the complaint and maintaining the family’s confidence in the school. The tips throughout this article will help you to achieve that.

I would suggest refraining from actively avoiding complaints or discouraging parents from lodging them. I believe that this behaviour is a product of old school nepotism. It is arguably a practice of corruption and infuriates most parents. Tackle complaints head-on – be proud of your school and do not hesitate.

In my experience, 99% of parents can be successfully managed by a school. Treat each case individually. Don't be afraid to step outside of the box. Complaints, if dealt with proactively, can be a positive result for the school and the relevant pupil. Damage limitation is maximised.

If you find yourself in a scenario where the parent’s desired goal is impossible, advise them of that and provide what support you can. Irrespective of how upset they get, continue to support their child and do what you can for the parents. While the complaint may not have achieved the family’s goal, their confidence in the school will likely still be intact.

If a complete breakdown in relations has occurred, prioritise protecting the pupil’s education, and provide all possible support to the parents. Damage to a school’s reputation should be a secondary concern and is almost never permanent in reality.


Make and retain evidence

Ask all relevant staff to make concise notes at meetings and calls, particularly when a dispute is on-going. Too many primary schools neglect to do this, but parents and their advisors pick up on it. Lack of evidence can lead to a “he said-she said” dilemma. It makes schools vulnerable and causes understandable paranoia in parents. Trust in a school is not unlimited.


Work to your strengths

Parents are automatically placed at an inherent disadvantage when submitting a complaint to a school. Why? The school is your territory. I have often observed parents being forced to co-operate with a sole member of senior management, who they have clashed with on numerous occasions in the past. This approach disadvantages the school. It is awkward, unfavourable, risky, and a wasted opportunity. Identify the staff member that gets along with the family well and ask them to speak with the parents before the matter escalates. Your school has numerous strengths. Use them in difficult times.


Seek out additional evidence and resources

If the complaint involves technical areas outside of your team’s expertise, seek external advice, and tell the family that this will delay the response. I have observed many schools helplessly trying every solution without consulting an expert. For instance, if a parent complains about how their child with auditory processing disorder is being treated, and your school has no experience, seek advice. The strongest schools build connections with charities and specialist companies and professionals.

If you were unsuccessful in securing additional evidence and resources, let the family know. Many families will be appreciative, and this reduces the chance of future complaints. It also maximises the chances of the current complaint being dropped.


Use government guidelines

Some DfE guidelines are mandatory while others are discretionary. Send the family an electronic copy (extract) of any rules you wish to rely on. Most parents value the input of external authorities, particularly powerful bodies. This simultaneously benefits your strategy and educates the family on a technical matter.


Manage parental expectations

In my experience, schools stay silent on this topic and suffer as a result.

For example, parents should not expect swift replies by email from their child's teacher (e.g. within 48 hours). Set standards of supporting families and stick to them. Do not allow parents to make assumptions.

On many occasions, I was left with no choice but to suggest to parents that they lowered their expectations for the sake of the school staff.

If it takes your school a long time to review and respond to the complaint, update the family at reasonable intervals. Avoid using template letters. Consider sending a handwritten note. Ask a member of staff to briefly speak to the parents. This small effort can make a significant difference further down the line.

For complex pupils or complaints, keep a summary of actions taken across the school. Many parents will be impressed as insufficient action on a school’s part is often a key motivation behind a complaint.


Staff conduct

A parent friendly approach will naturally minimise complaints. Parents will think twice before formally complaining. At the same time, do not allow staff to be woolly or evasive. Parents will recognise patterns and react adversely.

Do not use psychological tactics with parents or allow such tactics to be used by staff. My clients often reported to me that staff were “shutting down” and avoiding them.

It may seem obvious but try to avoid making parents feel uncomfortable in school. It will only be more difficult for you in the future, and potentially damage the pupil’s long-term education.

Disputes can be pleasant or unpleasant. In many instances, the choice is up to you. In my experience of advising both schools and parents, the most common complaint by parents is school staff patronising them. Do not allow this conduct under any circumstances.


Face reality

I have heard many senior managers express concerns about likely damage to the school’s reputation, or a fear of losing their job when a complaint is on-going. In my opinion, in all cases this was simply paranoia. It is often unrealistic and distracts senior managers from addressing complaints effectively. My confidence in this conclusion stems from the fact that no member of staff was ever dismissed for this reason during my career.


Conclusion

My experience suggests that perceived lack of action by a school and gradual paranoia on part of the parents are the two key causes of the most severe parental complaints.

Complaints can often be multi-faceted and add a burden to an already busy senior management workload. Adapt, build a strong system, be consistent, and you will be grateful further down the road.

  • Nabil Dance is an educational lawyer who advises parents and schools in England and Wales. You can contact him via nabildance@mail.com. The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for informational purposes only.


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