"I'm going to hit you on the hooter!"
I had hardly had time to sit down in my new office before the secretary ushered in a parent who greeted me with those words. Welcome to leadership!
As I soon learned, dealing with parents who have complaints against an individual teacher, the school in general or you personally is part and parcel of the job of a school leader. There are two rules: do your utmost to avoid escalation of the situation and avoid publicly blaming staff, either individually or collectively.
To take the first point, a parental concern can escalate into a formal complaint and then outright war, so your aim must be to cut it off early. I say cut it off, not brush it off: you want parents to leave your office feeling satisfied that you are taking their concerns seriously. They need to be reassured that you will investigate and take action as appropriate.
Listen to parents carefully and show that you are listening by repeating the points that they make. You should also take notes, to show that you recognise the importance of what they are saying. Be neutral: do not comment, do not be defensive, maintain a poker face and do not look surprised.
If the complaint is against you personally, you may need to apologise. It may be that you are in the right, but if the parents are up in arms then you got something wrong, if only in the way that you communicated it. An apology often cuts the ground from under their feet.
If the complaint is about another teacher, don't make any promises about what you will do beyond investigating, but do commit to getting in touch with the parents by a certain date and stick to it. It may still be appropriate for you to end the meeting with an apology. It should not be an apology for what the teacher or the school has allegedly done, as you don't yet have a full picture of what happened. But the school may somehow have given a misleading impression, so apologise for the parents having to come to see you, and thank them.
After the meeting, find out what happened. You might investigate yourself, but it is often better to leave this to a deputy, who can then report back to you formally. If it looks as though the issue might be serious, tell the chair of governors and keep him or her in the loop from then on.
Once you are in possession of the facts, contact the parents as promised. If they arrive in an aggressive frame of mind, ask for them to be shown not to your office but to an empty room, given a cup of tea and told that you will be in to see them in 10 minutes. This gives them time to cool down, and being in another office makes it easier for you to walk out when you decide that the meeting is over.
If you find that the school is at fault, do not blame a teacher in front of parents, even if he or she has deliberately gone against an explicit instruction. Do not apologise for what they have done, nor agree to tell parents what action may be taken. It is an internal matter and no business of theirs.
Asking a teacher to apologise to a student is not acceptable either. A teacher may choose to do so, but you should not request it to satisfy parents - members of staff need to know that you support them in front of parents, even if you tell them what you really think in the privacy of your office.
The majority of the time, this course of action works wonders. That parent who wanted to hit me on the hooter? He changed his mind and ended the meeting by thanking me for what the school was doing for his daughter.
Theodora Griff is a retired headteacher of a large independent school in the UK and a TES Connect contributor.
- Complaints from parents are part of school leadership.
- Take the complaint seriously, ensure the parents feel comfortable with how the matter will be investigated and respect their feelings.
- Ensure your staff are protected. If the fault is with you, then apologise. But if the fault is potentially with a staff member, investigate before admitting any fault. Do not apologise on the staff member's behalf, nor tell parents what action will be taken.
- Sometimes, as a school leader, you may have to take the blame yourself.