Don't feed the crocodile, drain the swamp

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Edinburgh's unique conciliation service has been a hit with parents and schools. Neil Munro asks why

* "When do we say as headteachers that we are not prepared to accept complaints from parents any longer?" * "What recourse do I have against these accusations?" * "I'm totally fed up with what's going on and I'd like to bounce ideas to someone outside the situation."

* "It is with sincere appreciation and gratitude that I write to you . . . I acted swiftly on your advice."

Irritation, pleas for help and satisfaction are the staple diet of Edinburgh education department's advice and conciliation service, which is unique in Scotland and also deals with complaints from parents and the public. The council decided to continue the initiative which had been started by the former Lothian Region in 1994.

Eilish Garland, a teacher and psychologist, has headed the service since its inception. At the outset she wondered whether it was playing with fire for an education department to develop a mechanism for dealing with complaints. Her first annual report, published yesterday (Thursday), suggests the question is now irrelevant. The helpline took 404 calls from parents, public and staff, and investigated 163 complaints against schools.

Elizabeth Maginnis, education convener in Edinburgh, says: "In the great bureaucracy that is the education service, it is important that parents and children feel their concerns are being addressed."

The council believes it showed its determination to go beyond rhetoric in handling the embarrassing breakdown in relations between some parents and the management of Hailesland primary in the city, which led to the early departure of the headteacher.

The nature of the conciliation service's work is necessarily more mundane than that, ranging from the parent who wanted to know whether his son had a right to sit Highers to the primary head who asked for advice about a parent's attempt to contact his daughter at school when he was on an indecency charge. Mundane perhaps but tricky.

Ms Garland is having to make fine judgments as a matter of course, particularly in deciding whether complaints are to be taken seriously. The service found 64 per cent of complaints were unjustified and only 36 per cent justified.

There is inevitably satisfaction that almost 90 per cent of complainants were happy with the outcome of investigations. "These figures show that in spite of the fact that two-thirds of complaints were found unjustified the majority of unjustified complainants were satisfied with the service provided on their behalf," the annual report states.

It adds: "The complaints may in some instances reflect unrealistic parental expectations of the education service which may have contributed to the high level of unjustified complaints and may reflect not so much on the education service but on the pressure on families."

Bullying is the single most common complaint, in 26 per cent of cases, followed by 21 per cent that are concerned with the attitudes of senior staff. But bullying can sometimes refer to the "he pulled my anorak jacket" incident or the "over-exuberant play in P2" which is no more than children learning to socialise. These would be classified as unjustified complaints.

The main complaints about staff are of being patronising or talking down to parents. Parents are frequently irritated when schools do not keep them in touch with what progress is being made with their complaints.

Nor do parents want to telephone the school to be told bluntly: "The head is out." The conciliatory approach advises receptionists to say: "The head is not available just now but the person best able to help you is . . ."

Ronnie Summers, the headteacher drafted in to turn round Hailesland, says: "The first thing to do about a complaint is to take it seriously." Mr Summers was one of 85 heads who took part in a conference run by the conciliation service on resolving conflicts entitled "Don't feed the crocodiles, drain the swamp". One lesson he learnt is that responses to complaints must be prompt. "You must develop an atmosphere of positive communication and continue to build on it," Mr Summers said. "It is important that a school gets the reputation of dealing with complaints effectively, because then its reputation will spread. "

The advice and conciliation service's report states: "Staff have generally been extremely helpful in assisting in the investigation and response to complainants and have participated fully in mediation towards resolution where necessary. There is a growing awareness that it is the complaint raised which is being investigated and not the individual member of staff."

Ms Garland says this comes near the top of her list of principles. "It is a bit like the analogy of child misbehaviour. You may disapprove of the behaviour but it does not mean you dislike the child."

This is one of those tricky fine lines but Ms Garland says she deals in perceptions. "My task is to mediate between the perceptions of one side and the other which sometimes means persuading parents that they need to have more realistic expectations of what schools can do."

She feels schools are more proactive in dealing with complaints; only seven of the 163 cases last year were about communication. Other strategies include an "appropriate friendly tone and style of letters sent to parents and other users" and the opportunity for complainants to have a "supporter" present during meetings with staff. Written notes should be made to avoid misunderstandings.

Mrs Maginnis says she had a complaint from a mother about a school in her own council ward which was resolved by "both sides talking themselves to death - and that requires people to listen". She says: "Some people are not very good at saying what is bothering them but it is important that they do if we are to set new standards of service and accountability."

Ms Garland says one of the strengths of the Edinburgh service is that she is located in the policy, planning and communications section of the education department. "I am not in direct line management to headteachers, which is very important to stress because it means I have no axe to grind and can hopefully bring a degree of impartiality to bear."

Her forte, she adds, is in dealing with difficult adolescents. Read what you like into that.

Handling complaints the conciliatory way

* Give name, establishment and section when you answer the phone

* Use a friendly tone of voice

* Deal with the complainant with consideration and respect. Say that the complaint will be taken seriously

* Stay calm and objective

* Remember that you provide a service so if you cannot help then you find the right person to contact

* Ask the complainant to clarify what their problem is

* Listen, and ask questions to help you understand the problem, before giving an answer

* Check with the caller that they understand what action will be taken and in what time-scale

* Ask if there is anything else that can be done to help

* Thank them for calling

* If a letter is necessary, plain language in helpful tones is required

* Log all complaints

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