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Angry parents? It's your call

The best way to avoid a confrontationis anticipation. Paul Blum continues his series on Life in Leadership

Being a member of the leadership team grants automatic membership to the stroppy parents' club. In primary schools, your working relationship with parents is much more regular. The children are younger and parents can talk to their child's class teacher about any problems when they collect them at home time. Even with this regular channel of communication, there can still be serious difficulties.

In secondary schools, the problem is much more difficult. The pupils come and go to school themselves so that the daily meeting disappears. When a parent has a problem, there is no one class teacher to meet, only a bewildering array of subject specialists, all with their different teaching habits.

The head of year and form tutor do not have the same familiarity with the teenagers in their care because they spend much less time with them. They will often be teaching when parental problems occur.

As an assistant or deputy head you will often be called on, in an emergency, to deal with an angry parent who has decided to storm up to the school out of sheer frustration with these complicated communication channels.

Parents are a diverse group of people, and will have very different issues about which they want to let off steam. Some are very pushy and intelligent and come to complain about lack of homework or poor behaviour disturbing their son or daughter's lessons.

There are those who complain that their child is being bullied or has been truanting lessons and that the school is doing nothing about it.

Then there are those who are convinced that one particular teacher is victimising their child. Some mothers and fathers come up to report that their son or daughter's special needs are not being met and the teachers are going too fast in the lessons.

Most of these problems are compounded by parents already feeling that a subject teacher, head of year, or tutor has not got back to them quickly enough. Because of the lack of opportunity for everyday informal meetings with staff, there is much more reliance on leaving phone messages. But phone messages are not always listened to.

The most explosive trigger that brings a parent into the school without a pre-arranged appointment is exclusion. A letter arrives announcing that their somewhat irritating son or daughter is now under their direct supervision during school hours for the next few days, bringing with it a sudden and unexpected inconvenience to their own daily routines. They listen to what their child has to say about how unfair the exclusion is and then they steam up to the school to "sort out the teachers".

To pre-empt these kind of incidents, one of the senior management team needs to phone and explain the reason for the forthcoming exclusion. But getting hold of parents before the event is not always possible. Exclusion letters are usually delivered in two different ways. The pupil is given one to take home by hand and one is sent by recorded post. For obvious reasons, it is often the back-up copy that the parents get to see.

Disputed exclusions rely on careful and conclusive investigation work. So as a leadership team member, you'll have to hope that your fellow senior colleagues have held a full investigation and kept proper written records.

When angry parents barge into a school and demand to speak to the headteacher, it is you rather than the head who is likely to be called out.

The priority as you meet the angry parents is to calm the situation, seek out more information on what the problem is, investigate the allegations with colleagues and get back to the family, promptly.

To achieve a successful resolution to the problem you should let the parents get their discontent off their chests and listen while they speak.

But it is also vital that you give a commitment to get back to them quickly -and do so.

Paul Blum is a member of the senior management team at a London comprehensive

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