19th February 1999 at 00:00
Joan Sallis Answers your questions

This is a large comprehensive in a socially-mixed area, with a tendency for the more confident parents to have a lot of say. The parent-teacher association is very active - though it does not succeed in attracting large numbers.

We have been discussing our complaints procedure, now legally required to be in force by September.

One parent-governor is arguing that the PTA committee (which he chairs!) should have to receive and investigate individual complaints, which I think is a terrible idea - and so does the headteacher.

Of course we accept that if parents in large numbers have a common concern, the PTA will naturally discuss that and, perhaps, make representations. The issue here is complaints that are purely individual.

I was amazed to find there was a lot of support for the PTA's idea among parents. Several said that the teachers always put up a smokescreen and that only an investigation by parents will ever be fair.

To their credit, the other four parent-governors said, "So what are we for, then?" which I think sums it up in a nutshell.

So do I. I'm a strong supporter of PTAs. Still, it's a dreadful suggestion that the PTA, especially in a school where it is not very representative of the parent body as a whole, should become a complaints committee.

First, where the PTA is not representative, such a role might put off less confident parents for whom this procedure is particularly needed.

Second, the final resolution of complaints within schools must be the task of the governing body, which has legal authority, is used to handling confidential matters, and already settles disciplinary issues for teachers and pupils. Besides, parents do have elected representation on the governing body.

Third, in a big school there will be numerous incidents, and in a good school many of these will be quickly dealt with by the staff concerned and the head if necessary.

I see no alternative to a system in which complaints first follow a route within the school, a route which must be clearly explained to everybody and often repeated.

Only if and when parents are still not satisfied, should they go to the governing body, whose members must deal fairly and fearlessly with them.

We do not want parents to think that their children's school produces smokescreens. That is the one thing that worries me about your letter. A difficult but essential task for a governing body is to ensure that the staff develop a non-defensive culture, are ready to investigate and accept blame if necessary, and welcome the free expression of concerns. Above all, they are accountable.

Built-in to procedures must be foolproof recording, a strict timetable for response, and provision for referral to a senior level within the school if necessary.

It is vital to stress "necessary". I think it far better if a teacher receiving a complaint is willing to apologise.

The important thing is that parents know that they can go to the departmental head or year head if they don't get satisfaction from a subject teacher or form tutor, and that loyalty to colleagues will not lead to a "smokescreen".

It goes without saying that governors should be brave enough to uphold a complaint where they think there has been an injustice.

It has been said that a good school will have lots of complaints. Good school management encourages complaints and explains how to make them - and does not regard an apology as apocalyptic.

Send questions for Joan Sallis to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax 0171 782

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