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Too complex to complain

Consumer council wants rules for parents with a grievance against schools to be simplified

DUNDEE APPEARS to be the education authority with the most dissatisfied parents, according to a report published this week by the Scottish Consumer Council.

Complaints made to the council averaged 13.5 for every thousand pupils in 2004-05, compared with the lowest figure of 0.28 in West Dunbartonshire.

The Scottish figure was 4.5 per 1,000 pupils.

In fact, the Dundee figures include all concerns and enquiries, as well as complaints, made to the council's "high profile" advice and conciliation service, an education spokesman for the council said.

"Many of the contacts made by parents to this service are simply to ask for advice about their child's education," he added.

Schools get an average of seven complaints a year from parents, the SCC survey found. That ranges from one complaint in very small schools with fewer than 100 pupils to 14 every year in schools which have more than 500 pupils.

The council's report, based on a survey of information provided by 218 schools in all 32 local authorities, is intended to coincide with two major pieces of legislation which have significant implications for parental rights - those on parental involvement and additional support for learning.

It concludes that the present system is fragmented and complex, with parents able to go to education appeal committees, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, independent adjudication or an additional support needs tribunal. Douglas Sinclair, chairman of the SCC, said that "successive pieces of legislation have created a system which is neither coherent nor consistent."

Mr Sinclair, formerly chief executive of Fife Council and of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, added: "It is difficult to see how any parent could navigate the system without considerable information and support."

The consumer council now wants the Scottish Executive to publish detailed guidance for councils on how they should handle complaints about schools.

The SCC did find that a number of councils had "consumer-friendly" information for parents on handling complaints, with East Lothian topping the league, followed by East Ayrshire, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Scottish Borders and West Lothian. The only authority which did not have any information for parents on how to handle complaints was Shetland, although individual schools had information in their handbooks. Around three-quarters of schools and all but one council provided information to parents, but the information was not always up to date or comprehensive.

Fewer than one in six schools complied with their legal duty by including information on the right of parents to complain to the Public Services Ombudsman.

Mr Sinclair said: "The key to ensuring that a grievance doesn't damage home-school links is to ensure there are high-quality, consumer-friendly procedures in place to resolve the problem."

* The full SCC report is available on Info-rich The Scottish Consumer Council checklist on information for parents Does the information indicate that complaints are positively welcomed?

Does it specify what a complaint actually is?

Does it make clear how to put things right?

Is it easily accessible in different places?

Is it free of jargon?

Does it guarantee confidentiality, so the complaint will not lead to discrimination against parent or child?

Does it include a timescale for acknowledging and responding to complaints?

Is there information on "next steps" if parents remain dissatisfied ?

Are there details on how complaints are monitored, to reassure parents that staff are listening to their views?

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