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Stopping the snowball effect

Parents are too often fobbed off or denied a hearing because schools have not developed effective complaints procedures, Anat Arkin reports. An accessible, easily-understood system for dealing with complaints can stop minor problems snowballing into major disputes. But governors' lack of response has led some parents to call for a legal right to be heard when they complain.

Headteachers and local authority advisers attending a recent conference on complaints procedures favoured national guidelines which schools could decide how to use. But parents called for a statutory procedure as without it, they said, only those heads and governors already willing to listen to parents and pupils would adopt a written procedure.

The rest would continue in what one parent called the "state of denial", which had led the chair of governors at her children's school to hint that she should take them elsewhere if she was not happy with the school as a "whole package".

Other parents, including a former teacher, spoke of the patronising attitude of governors and teachers. They argued that unless schools learnt to treat parents as equals, even a statutory procedure would not be effective.

"There would have to be a genuine commitment to working together for the benefit of children and to valuing parents' contribution," said a parent who has been in dispute with the head and governors of her son's school for the past two years.

The dispute began when this parent failed to get a satisfactory response to a complaint about the handling of a minor bullying incident. She then tried to find out if the school had a policy and, after being repeatedly fobbed off, passed from the head to the governing body and back again and made to wait up to eight weeks for letters to be acknowledged, she complained to the Education Secretary.

A written complaints procedure might have prevented a minor complaint from snowballing in this way. But according to David Leabeater, director of National Consumer Council Services, many procedures are ineffective because they ignore informal complaints, allow for excessive delays or seem to define problems out of existence. These procedures are often based on the premise that people who complain want heads to roll. In reality, most just want an apology, an explanation and an undertaking that problems will not recur, Mr Leabeater told the conference, organised by the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE).

Arguing that the people who complain usually represent the tip of an iceberg of grievances, he urged schools to see each complaint as a suggestion for how things might be improved.

"There's a tendency to focus on individual grievances, but organisations should do more to see if there's a pattern of complaints, of systematic failures," he said.

The conference, part of a project aiming to produce an off-the-peg starting point for local education authorities and schools wanting to introduce a general complaints procedure, considered a draft model produced by a RISE working party and drawing on the work of several authorities, including Bexley, Enfield, Greenwich, Leicestershire and Southwark.

In line with the recommendations of the Citizens' Charter Complaints Task Force, it is made up of four key stages: * on-the-spot response, which should resolve most complaints; * referral to the headteacher for investigation; * internal review by the governing body; and * external review by the authority or other bodies, including diocesan authorities in the case of voluntary-aided church schools.

Some conference delegates thought this structure too complicated and that the whole draft procedure, which runs to 10 pages, looked too much like a staff disciplinary procedure. Ray Page of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre said existing statutory procedures covered complaints about admissions, exclusions, special needs, the national curriculum and other serious issues. For "lower level" issues, including bullying and homework policies, schools needed a simpler and more straightforward system.

The draft procedure stresses the importance of letting parents know where they can go for information, advice and advocacy if they need it. Ideally this support should come from Citizens' Advice Bureaux or other independent sources, though the authors also say that "useful help often comes from individual governors or local authority officers" provided they can remain apart from any later stage in the procedure.

But one parent said there was little confidence in authorities not taking the line of least resistance or greatest experience - "which usually means taking the school's side".

Margaret Griffin, a headteacher from Kent, also doubted whether authority-funded advice workers were feasible in areas with many grant-maintained schools as authorities would not have the funds for salaries.

For several of the headteachers, funding presented the biggest hurdle to adopting effective complaints procedures.

Ancillary and teaching staff, including heads, needed to learn how to deal with complaints which would mean "customer service" training.

Contrasting the high street retailer with the education service, RISE trustee Maurice Plaskow said: "Marks Spencer has created the perception among consumers that they give a quality service and that they are concerned and considerate providersIin education we don't seem to have succeeded in convincing the consumers that a quality service is being provided in which everyone has a say."

RISE is keen to hear views on its draft model complaints procedure which is currently being revised. For a copy, send a SAE to RISE, 54 Broadwalk, London E18 2DW.


* Define what constitutes a complaint and ensure that this definition is clearly understood by all staff. Any expression of dissatisfaction should be dealt with positively and constructively.

* Provide for speedy handling. This can often be done on the spot without going through formal procedures. There should be established time limits for action and everyone should be kept informed of progress.

* Ensure a full and fair investigation. An independent review should be included where possible.

* Respect any desire for confidentiality. Systems should ensure that people who complain should not be subject to discrimination or retribution.

* Address the points at issue and provide an effective response and appropriate redress.

* Systems should provide information to management so service can be improved.

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