McConnell to probe bogus complaints

4th May 2001 at 01:00
THE Education Minister is to order an investigation into the way parental complaints against teachers are dealt with by schools and authorities.

Jack McConnell intends to mount an inquiry in the second half of the year after his task group on pupil indiscipline has completed its work and reported in June.

He issued his pledge after the matter was raised with him by a delegate to the annual congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (page seven).

It follows an announcement two weeks ago by the Prime Minister that the Education Secretary south of the border would shortly be announcing moves to deal with what teachers believe is a growing tide of false allegations of abuse against teachers by disgruntled parents and pupils.

Margaret Smith, the SSTA's representative at St Andrews High in Kirkcaldy, told Mr McConnell at the union's Peebles congress that such complaints were on the increase. "They are not the sort of complaints that have just grown arms and legs. Most of them are completely without foundation, the result of parents simply believing what their child tells them," she said.

Mr McConnell said he was keen to improve the situation. "From my experience as a parent, teacher and politician, I don't know of anybody who believes that complaints are handled well at present - not parents, not teachers, not headteachers."

He wanted to limit spurious or unfounded complaints but also to encourage parents who may have legitimate grounds to complain and are reluctant to do so.

As it happens, the SSTA sent off details to its lawyers on Tuesday of a case it claims contains unfounded allegations against a member.

Jim Docherty, the union's assistant genera secretary, said the issue was "a matter of increasing concern". The union sends three or four "restraining letters" a month to parents, warning that legal action will follow if allegations persist.

The union will also expect education authorities to act to protect teachers, including taking out an interdict preventing a parent from entering a school, which has happened in at least two authorities.

Mr Docherty suggested that all authorities properly investigate complaints and felt Mr McConnell was being swayed into believing the system is not working well by disgruntled parents who have failed to win their case.

"We would expect that, where an allegation from a parent is unfounded and it emanated from the child, the pupil in question should be warned as to their future conduct.

"There have been cases where the pupil's continued presence in the school has caused significant problems in the relationship with the teacher concerned, and we trust an authority would conclude that he or she is better completing their education in another school."

Mr Docherty accepted that it should be open to a parent to ask a school to investigate a complaint against a teacher - "but calmly, not going in with all guns blazing".

Most authorities have an official to handle complaints from parents, and some use a corporate complaints machinery that covers all services.

Edinburgh is unique in having an advice and conciliation service solely to mediate in disputes between parents and schools. The result is that the total number of complaints against the city's schools has fallen in the past year by nearly 40 per cent while cases where complaints were justified fell by 66 per cent.

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