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Right the wrongs

Schools must set up a way of dealing with complaints, reports Lindy Hardcastle

Governors should set up customer-friendly complaints procedures to show they are interested in parents' views and to stop small worries escalating into bigger ones, advises the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE).

With funding from the Department for Education and Employment, the trust has produced a useful publication, Complaints in Schools, consisting of a report and a model policy.

The report is based on a survey of local authorities in England and Wales about their complaints procedures, and a conference held in London last year. Parents, headteachers, unions, local authorities, the DFEE, the Ombudsman and consumer and legal advice groups were represented.

Governors and governor organisations do not seem to have been involved, although governors are responsible for devising and implementing school complaints policies.

Local education authorities are required to hear complaints about their schools' failure to teach the national curriculum, provide religious education or furnish parents with statutory information. They also have specific powers regarding exclusions, admissions and special needs. All other categories of complaints are supposed to be dealt with internally by the schools.

The survey reveals some dissatisfaction with present systems for dealing with complaints from parents. Practice among local authorities varies: some have set up panels to review all unresolved complaints with the agreement of schools, or provide an arbitration service on request; others have devised model policies for use in schools.

Although parents may appeal directly to the Education Secretary on the grounds that a governing body is behaving unreasonably, such appeals are rare and seldom lead to the use of his legal powers to intervene and issue directions to governing bodies. Some delegates at the RISE conference proposed the introduction of an education ombudsman, or an extension of the powers of the local government ombudsman to deal with internal school complaints.

The conference agreed on the importance of training for staff and governors in handling complaints, the availability of independent advice and support for parents, and adequate publicity about the availability of schools complaints procedures.

Schools are urged to set up their own simple and consumer-friendly procedures. "Otherwise what began as a simple concern can degenerate into a serious complaint about how the original concern was handled. A key sign of quality in an organisation is its willingness to listen to criticism and challenge from the users of its services, and its ability to respond positively to these in order to bring about improvement," says the report. Parents' motives for complaint were often simply to seek an explanation or apology rather than specific remedy.

RISE's model general complaints procedure for schools establishes some general principles of speed, confidentiality, support for both parties, training, record-keeping and redress. It then details thoroughly the various stages of any complaint through the class teacher, the head, the chairman of governors, a governors' complaints panel and local authority review where available and the DFEE. The report questions the lack of any external local review stage for complaints in many voluntary aided and grant-maintained schools.

The report also includes suggestions for the text of a leaflet for parents summarising the procedure and the guidance issued by Hertfordshire County Council to teachers on how to deal with the initial contact with a complaining parent.

Complaints in Schools is obtainable from RISE, 54 Broadwalk, London E18 2DW. Pounds 6.75 including postage

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