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Keeping your customers satisfied

The Audit Commission's hints on "customer care" could help set up a parent-friendly complaints procedure. Bob Doe reports. Does your school have a published policy on complaints? Does it specify who is responsible for investigating them, set limits on how long they should take to do so and require all complaints - or indeed all letters to the school - to be answered in writing? And is there a follow-up procedure to check whether those who complained are satisfied with the response they received?

Those are some of the standards for dealing with the public suggested by the Audit Commission. How local councils measure up to them was reported on in the local authority league tables published last month by the commission. But the "customer care" approach they suggest for public services is just as applicable to schools. Though they may suggest a more stringent approach to accountability to individual parents than many are used to, governors keen to see their school more parent-friendly should be asking how far practice in their own schools matches up to them.

At the simplest level, councils are encouraged to set targets for the time taken to answer the telephone or to reply to letters. This presumes, of course, that all calls and letters will be answered. That cannot always be taken for granted, especially if it is not clear who in an organisation is responsible for doing so or whether a letter requires a reply. A note to school from a parent explaining why a child was absent, for instance, would not normally be answered; but what about one asking about the loss of a piece of sports kit? Or the lack of homework?

A sensible question a governor might ask then is who, in school, would normally receive letters and decide whether an answer was required? Who should answer? Are these decisions made by the form teacher? The head? The secretary? And who would decide whether it was a simple query ("Anyone seen his shorts?") or a complaint ("This is the third pair this termI")?

For the Audit Commission, the starting point for a complaints procedure is "what counts as a complaint?" The most common definition adopted by councils is based on that in the Local Government Ombudsman Act: "Any expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about the standard of council service, actions or lack of action by the council or its staff affecting an individual client or group of clients". One or two councils go beyond actions to include the attitudes of staff, underlining the way they expect customers to be treated.

"Any expressionI" is a pretty tall order. Some councils' definitions suggest what form the expression should take, though few absolutely require it to be in writing. Should any criticism overheard about a school trigger the complaints procedure? Or an anonymous complaint? Does a complaint have to be addressed to the head or even the governors? Or does dissatisfaction expressed to any member of staff count, teaching or otherwise?

When it comes to handling those complaints, the commission sets a number of standards. Those that could apply in schools translate into a series of questions:

* Is there a written policy and procedure for dealing with complaints?

* Is it published and readily available to parents?

* Are responsibilities for receiving and investigating complaints clearly spelt out?

* Who is responsible for overseeing these arrangements?

* Are there time limits for dealing with complaints?

* Are those who complained informed if these are exceeded?

* And are they given reasons for the delay and revised deadlines?

* Are all written complaints answered with a written explanation?

* Is there a follow-up procedure to find out if those who complained are satisfied by the explanation?

* Is there a system for reviewing causes of complaints to avoid recurrence?

* Is this then reported-on to parents?

Schools and governing bodies are not required by law to have a complaints procedure - though the Department for Education's School Governors: a guide to the law does recommend one.

And parents have a statutory right to go over the heads of governors to complain to the local authority and ultimately to the Secretary of State for Education about the curriculum and qualifications offered in the school, the way it charges for school activities, daily acts of worship and failure to provide the many bits of information parents are entitled to receive.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of such a complaint, any school or governing body found to have ignored or not noticed parents' dissatisfaction at an earlier stage is unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing at the hands of a council or department which itself is compelled to operate under new customer-friendly Citizen's Charter rules. A school that has done its best to satisfy parents, on the other hand, is quite likely to have reasonable judgments confirmed on appeal.

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