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Show you care and they'll listen

Neil Munro reports on the unique work of Edinburgh's conciliation service for parent complaints

The Education Minister's search for better ways of handling parental complaints against schools (TESS, last week) could lead him to look little farther than his own doorstep. If Jack McConnell took the short trip from St Andrew's House to Edinburgh City Council's headquarters, he would find Scotland's only advice and conciliation service dedicated to resolving such complaints.

As it happens, the service produced its annual report this week. It showed that complaints from parents, which could not be resolved at school level, fell by 39 per cent from 138 to 84 in the past year - compared with 175 three years ago.

Even more significantly, complaints which were found to be justified decreased by 66 per cent.

Eilish Garland, who has managed the service since its inception in 1994, believes the figures show that the council's policy of impartial mediation, coupled with proactive support for schools, is paying dividends.

The Scottish Consumer Council found in a survey at that time that systems for handling complaints were "patchy" and that the experience was stressful for parents and staff. A spokesperson said better procedures were now in place but the experience was unlikely to be any better.

Edinburgh's advice and conciliation service was set up partly because officials felt that complaints were taking up more and more of their time and this was "getting in the way of their work", as the council's former director of education put it.

Ms Garland said that Edinburgh's previous approach, the one adopted in most authorities, amounted to little more than "firefighting". Now there is "a dedicated service which provides a sharper focus in the handling and management of complaints and their resolution".

She attaches particular importance to being proactive, which involves training and supporting school staff in how to handle complaints so they do not get out of hand and form the intractable cases that arrive on her desk (only one in five cases went to full mediation last year).

The service takes a "blame-free" attitude, Ms Garland says, and she expects schools to take complaints seriously and to do so on a whole-school basis. This means that all those with whom parents come into contact, including school scretaries and janitors as well as teachers, should be equipped to handle complaints at least in the initial stages.

"If I was to sum up in one word what the major advantage of our service has been, it would be responsiveness," Ms Garland says. "The one thing which people hate is uncertainty. What they want is to be listened to, taken seriously, have their complaints dealt with expeditiously and appropriately and given an explanation for the decision."

The fall in the number of complaints reflects the effectiveness of Edinburgh's approach, Ms Garland believes. They range from council policy, staff attitudes and poor communication to discipline and bullying. But it is unjustified complaints, while down overall, which form an increasing part of the case load - from two-thirds of the total previously to four-fifths now.

Ms Garland suggests in her annual report that "unrealistic parental expectations of the education service" are behind many of the unjustified cases. Parents are advised that they should be "reasonable" in dealing with school staff and mostly they are - despite headlines about aggressive parents, Edinburgh reports that only 6 per cent of parents dealt with by the advice and conciliation service last year were abusive.

When it was set up, Edinburgh acknowledged that conciliation machinery managed by a council employee could be a no-win situation. Parents might view it as just another part of the educational establishment while attempts to bend over backwards to satisfy parents could upset teachers, it was feared.

In fact, the service has an 88 per cent satisfaction rating among parents, despite 83 per cent of complaints being judged unfounded. This underlines Ms Garland's contention that what matters is not always the outcome, but treating complaints seriously, objectively and fairly. Staff satisfaction with the conciliation service is even higher, at 98 per cent.

Ms Garland stresses that the crucial ingredient is again impartiality. A complaints service must also be headed by someone with negotiating powers who is senior enough to be taken seriously by both headteachers and parents.

There are now signs that Edinburgh's service is in demand. Ms Garland has undertaken consultancy in the past year for other authorities, the Executive and 50 senior staff from independent schools.

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