'Backing teachers at all costs is bad – for teachers'

Schools must listen to complaints from parents even if it seems clear they are wrong, says teacher Gordon Cairns

Schools must always listen to parents' complaints, says teacher Gordon Cairns

Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher and founder of the Michaela Community School, received thousands of likes on Twitter recently when she advised parents that they should always back the teacher over their child. As a teacher who probably gets his fair share of complaints from home, the logical thing would be to join in the chorus of approval for a respectful, compliant parent cohort.

And yet as uncomfortable as it is when your actions are being questioned by a disgruntled parent – even when you know you have done the right thing – I would still prefer that the grievances were aired to the school, rather than having those passionate advocates for their children artificially silenced. Otherwise, the issues left unaired, whether with or without merit, will simply brew resentment.


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The surprising thing about what parents choose to complain about is that they don't tend to be the things you do which you immediately think, “I shouldn't have said that." Yet other events which at the time seemed so minor you have almost forgotten about them have the school secretary's phone ringing. One parent informed me face to face that she was going to complain all the way to the top to the director of education after I recommended that her child drink water rather going thirsty on a week-long residential trip, after discovering the centre tuck shop didn't stock Irn Bru. In those situations, all you can do is tell them to go for it.

Parents complaining about teachers

However spurious some of the complaints might be, they shouldn't be blocked. I think it is a valid way of letting young people know that their parents have their backs, a form of nurture for older children, knowing they have somebody who will support them no matter what. And if parents are just to accept that whatever their child tells them about what their teacher said cannot be true, because the teacher is always right, then the next generation will have a festering resentment for authority.

As teachers, we should at the very least be made aware of our mistakes or of the things we do which have annoyed our students and their parents.

As a parent, I've been on the other end of the phone complaining about the treatment of my children. There was the time my son was the only boy asked to wear a swimming cap at swimming lessons for "health and safety" reasons as he might not see the edge of the pool through his hair and could bump his head. (His teacher didn't reply when I asked if they had banned the backstroke for the same reason.)

So, I can understand why a headteacher would make a Twitter call to silence parental complaints, as so much administrative and senior management time must be spent investigating allegations or even frivolous grumbles. A group of parents who are only heard from when it is time to fundraise, to provide helpers for school trips or to run the Christmas fair would be great for the smooth running of schools. 

However, even though it would make our lives quieter, backing teachers at all costs is bad for children, parents – and teachers.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English who works in Scotland

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