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What to do with the moaners?

It is best to nip troubles in the bud, advises David Marriott.

Should schools actively encourage complaints? Sometimes governors assume that introducing a complaints procedure will cause a flurry of moans and grumbles, as a new bypass attracts more traffic.

It does not usually happen, though. For every formally notified complaint there are probably five to 10 that remain unstated and festering, so nipping the ones you hear about in the bud can help to defuse the invisible time-bombs.

Advice and guidance on dealing with complaints is scattered throughout the School Governors' Guide to the Law. Much of it focuses on specific aspects of the curriculum and says, "for the wide variety of other complaints there may be no formal procedures".

Governing bodies must see that complaints are "dealt with properly", and good practice is described as drawing up and publicising procedures which ensure fairness and a chance for the complainant to state their case. Decisions should be given in writing and rights of appeal notified to the complainant.

A couple of years ago the then Department for Education and Employment produced a draft model complaints policy for schools which was quietly dropped before it became statutory, a victim of the need to reduce bureaucracy. It was long and detailed, and was best strangled at birth. However, from September 2003, boards will be required to have a policy in place.

Many already have, and the best are on one side of A4, usually including a simple flow diagram showing what should happen to a given kind of complaint. Unfortunately, even where these exist and are widely publicised, some complainants will bypass them completely, either by accident or design. The trend is to go for the litigation option even before the school's policy has been used. Human rights legislation may also encourage this approach but there is no guarantee that such a case will be successful.

And a complaint may present itself in many different forms. People do not generally like to moan in our culture, and if they do not see it as a complaint they will not follow a procedure. Many comments, questions and observations fall into this grey area, and the onus is often on the recipient of the grumble to recognise it for what it is and encourage use of the proper channels.

Whose job is it anyway? The Department for Education and Skills guidance advises that the class teacher should usually be first in line, followed by the head and then the governing body, though this will vary case by case. The headteacher is in pole position, as day-to-day manager of the school, and will probably be able to deal effectively with most complaints. It is not a good idea for governors to be involved until the later stages .

Schools can exacerbate difficulties. If a complaint is taken personally, then emotion can cloud judgment and before long a spiral of angry letters and phone calls can turn what might have been an easily resolved problem into a major, time-consuming issue. People on the defensive or seeking to strike back against a hurt will write things in a letter they would never dare say to someone's face - and they create a permanent record in the process.

Having adopted a defensive pose, it is hard to back down and admit some responsibility. Be courteous, stick to the facts and maintain your objectivity. A complaint is an opportunity to review policy and practice. You might be reassured that there is nothing amiss or you could find that improvements are needed. Either way, it is not a bad outcome.

If the problem cannot be resolved at school level, the complainant may choose to take the issue to the education authority or, ultimately, the Education Secretary. However, the LEA's powers to intervene are tightly constrained by the Government's code of practice, which extols the principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success.

Only in very specific and serious circumstances may an LEA get involved in a dispute between, say, a parent and a governing body. If either or neither party want that, the LEA is left on the sidelines.

It is better to be safe than sorry. An effective complaints procedure can save untold amounts of grief and time - but make sure you encourage and collect compliments and thanks, too.

David Marriott is head of governor support at Wiltshire County Council and author of "The Effective School Governor", pound;15.95, published by Network Educational Press

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