How to cope when the whingeing starts

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Robin Precey Answers your leadership questions

I am having all sorts of problems with some very difficult, complaining parents. What can I do about it?

This is an issue that affects us all, and can be very time-consuming. We are expected to deal with all complaints about our schools, whether justified or not, in a professional way that maintains high standards.

It is usually better to anticipate a problem and make contact with a potential complainant to defuse the situation. If the school has been at fault apologies are often much appreciated (and sadly, unexpected). When a person does complain make sure they get a quick (within 24 hours) acknowledgement that it is being dealt with.

Always try to engage the brain before the tongue. A phone call back after a short period of thinking time is a good idea. Writing the main points down before you make the call can help to keep the conversation on track. These points also apply when dealing with an unexpected enquiry from the press.

Have a protocol for handling complaints that includes a first point of contact for parents the tutorteacher then head of yeardepartment then deputyassistant head before the head. Parents, teachers and office staff need to be aware of this. Sometimes parents ignore all this and jump straight to the chair of governors so good and regular communication with them is important to avoid mixed messages.

Having said that you will get back to a parentcarer soon, make sure you do. Follow your protocol. If it is a serious complaint beyond or about a teacher it is best to get a deputy to investigate in case you need to be involved in an appeal. Investigations need to be fair, with staff, student and parental views taken into account, but it's not "The Bill" so the balance of probability is sufficient to reach a conclusion. If the complaint is legitimate we need to apologise and try to ensure the problem does not occur again - not always easy.

If you are dealing with an extreme case - for example, where angry parents are causing a disturbance in the school andor committing a criminal offence - it is wise to give a warning and get the support of the local authority, if you are part of one, to issue a warning letter. It may be necessary to get a banning order in the most difficult cases. Abusive telephone calls can also be a problem. These can be referred to the police although you will want to use your judgment on this. Do keep a record.

Similarly abusive letters should be acknowledged and the letter retained.

Unless a specific or damaging allegation is made no response is probably needed. Anonymous abusive letters are best just filed in case they do become a serious problem.

Log every parental complaint for future reference in case there is any comeback but also to analyse over time to see if there are any patterns andor trends. It may tell you something about your school. A copy should be kept on the student's file.

Good practice would have a senior manager on duty (on rotation to share the load) at every parents'carers' evening as a "floater" to pick up any angry parentcarer and steer them to a nearby designated interview room.

If it is a common problem in your school some staff training may be needed.

If after all your efforts the person is still unhappy they need to be referred to your school's complaints policy (yes - we all need one now) and the next step may be for your chair of governors to get involved.

The Secondary Heads Association plans to issue more detailed guidelines to its members at some stage. Other professional associations can also advise on this difficult issue. There is a very good pack from the Department for Education and Skills called "Dealing with Troublemakers in Schools".

No school is perfect and we live in an age in which our students' parents are more demanding and have high expectations for their children.

Of course, sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes the complaints are unjustified. Whatever the situation it is another set of skills that headteachers in this 21st century need to add to their ever-expanding toolkit.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also a consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question? Email

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