Constructive complaining

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Over recent years there has been a change in attitude to making complaints about the provision of services. Ever alert to the need to increase market share many large companies actually encourage complaints and use them to improve their services. Schools have been slower to see complaints as a positive opportunity.

There are legal procedures concerning appeals about admission and exclusions which may involve governing bodies. The statutory right to complain only covers failure to teach the national curriculum and to provide religious education. Some local education authorities have drawn up complaints procedures which go wider than this and have encouraged schools to have a procedure. The Office for Standards in Education pre-inspection questionnaire asks parents' views of the way a school handles complaints.

Like so much else, it seems the way in which they do so varies enormously. Yet it is in schools' interest to deal with complaints successfully. Complaints lore says that dissatisfied customers who feel their complaint has been ignored will tell other people and that for every complaint which surfaces there will be several similar ones below the surface. Furthermore a procedure in place will mean less time is taken up dealing with complaints rather than approaching each one ad hoc. If litigation is to become a regular feature of school life, a complaints procedure could be some protection.

Many schools have set up such procedures covering all aspects of school life. They should involve stages to reassure complainants that their complaints are being heard by more than one person. An appeal to the governing body will be part of the process. Playing a crucial role in dealing with complaints is part of being a "critical friend" to the school.

The whole school should be involved in drawing up and being made aware of the complaints procedure. Training in dealing with complaints both for staff and governors is vital. An approach which expects, accepts and deals with complaints is the aim. Once a procedure is agreed it should be well publicised. It is best to think of all expressions of dissatisfaction as complaints even if they are not labelled as such. If the school system is to benefit from complaints then records of complaints and subsequent action need to be kept.

Complaints are best dealt with as speedily as possibly, preferably at an initial informal level. If not immediately resolved, a staged formal process should be made clear. Complaints should not, at least initially, have to be put in writing, but a written complaint and response will be needed if the complaint goes beyond an informal stage.

Some complainants might need access to support in pursuing a complaint. If support, for example, from the LEA parent officer is not available, a designated governor might be involved although not then in any subsequent hearing. Monitoring and feedback is important. Complainants should be kept informed on the progress of their complaint at every stage. Procedures should include the timescale within which parents should hear what has happened about their complaint.

Many parents are not seeking redress but to be taken seriously, with an acknowledgement that their complaint was justified. Parents need to be sure that their children will not be singled out because their parents have made a complaint.

The procedure for making complaints about the headteacher, perhaps by complaint directly to the chair of governors, should be included in any procedure. Governors have to be aware of and resolve the potential problems of reporting back to parents which might arise if the complaint is related to disciplinary procedures about a staff member.

It should be clear which member of staff is to be approached initially with the complaint, usually the class teacher or form tutor. It is at this point that the member of staff dealing with the complaint has to be ready to make a record, and deal with it or refer it if he or she cannot deal with it immediately.

If the issue cannot be resolved within a certain number of days, it should be referred to the head. If still unresolved the procedure should involve resolution by the governing body involving similar procedures to a grievance procedure. The review panel should not include the whole governing body. It should operate in a similar way to appeals panels, allowing each side to make their case and reaching a decision in private.

A written statement should be sent to the complainant making it clear where the complaint can be taken beyond the school. Any further process beyond the school involving the LEA, for example, will depend on the type of school. A model complaints procedure based on current good practice will be available soon from Research and Information on State Education, 55 Broadwalk, London E18 2DW.

Margaret Tulloch is executive secretary of the Campaign for State Education

Case study

A parent's complaint to West Sussex County Council about the failure of a governing body to ensure the controversial national curriculum tests were taken in 1992 was rejected. But the governors were ticked off for the wording of their decision not to proceed with the tests.

A panel of councillors set up under the formal complaints procedures all local authorities must have to hear complaints about the national curriculum found it was reasonable for the governors to conclude that the teacher test boycott made the tests impractical. But it criticised the governing body's resolution which suggested they were opposed to the use of external invigilators as this could be seen as acting on opinion rather than practicality. Since the test date had passed, it is unclear what the panel could have done to remedy the governors' action if it had found it to be mistaken.

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