Private Education - Think your school's parents are pushy?

9th August 2013 at 01:00
Principal relieved as disgruntled couple lose High Court battle

A private school principal has spoken of his relief after winning a High Court battle against parents who bombarded his school with complaints and requests that left his staff in tears.

Judge Jeremy Richardson last week castigated the couple, saying that their behaviour "went well beyond the realms of even the most zealous, some might say pushy, parents".

The judge said that Hall School Wimbledon, in South London, had gone through an "enduring nightmare" at the hands of the pair, who made repeated complaints - for example, when their daughter received an A and not an A+ in a spelling test.

Speaking to TES, Timothy Hobbs, headmaster of Hall School, described the affair as "distasteful" and questioned the sense of the "buffoon" who suggested that the couple had a legal case in the first place.

The parents - a French couple who cannot be named for legal reasons - brought court action over what they deemed to be a breach of contract when the international school suggested that their three children be withdrawn. But the school said it was left with little choice after years of complaints from and confrontations with the businessman and his wife.

Mr Hobbs said the ordeal lasted for three years. Events came to a head at a parents' evening, when the couple "detained" the English teacher for 45 minutes, leaving staff "visibly shaken".

"It reached a point where staff were being insulted and it was just not good for trade and attracting potential new parents," Mr Hobbs said. "If you have a member of staff crying in the staffroom it does make things difficult. We are a family-style school and people got very upset."

Mr Hobbs said that parents' evening is an opportunity for parents and teachers to have a drink together and celebrate the success of the school, but the "very public" confrontation with the couple left the teacher "shocked and demoralised".

"There's relief here - there is among parents as well," he added. "We had an Ofsted inspection in December and we had a very high approval rate, and we try to have our parents at the heart of their child's education. We want to involve them as long as they don't want to just start a fight."

The school eventually asked the parents to withdraw their children because it felt that trust between the two parties had been irrevocably broken. It offered to waive any outstanding fees, return the parents' deposit and write references for their children.

But the parents sought #163;50,000 in damages, as they felt that the school had reneged on its promise to give their two sons good references when they applied to Donhead Preparatory School, also in Wimbledon.

"The parents were aggressive; they followed a legal avenue that was disproportionate," Mr Hobbs said. "I mean, who was giving them advice? It cost a fortune to prepare for - who said they had a chance of success? Someone should have said, 'You have this wrong, just back off and smile more.'"

According to law firms that specialise in education, parents are more likely to take private schools to court than state schools because they are paying for their children's education.

Katie Michelon, a solicitor with Browne Jacobson, said that her firm advises private schools to make sure their contracts do not leave them vulnerable to legal action.

"Parental behaviour can be a contentious issue in the independent sector because independent schools are free to set how they admit their students," Ms Michelon said. "If their terms and conditions are not tight enough there can be gaps, which enable parents to take them to court.

"It is very contractual in the independent school sector, as parents are paying for a service, so you are more likely to see this kind of thing in private schools rather than in the state-maintained sector."

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