When parents and teachers collide
Complaints about schools are on the rise. What’s going on?
Parents find themselves thrust into an adversarial system, which can be intimidating. Photograph: Getty Images
What happens when parents fall out with their child’s school? How can they drop their son or daughter off at the school gates when the relationship with the principal – or worse, the teacher – has broken down?
School complaints procedures are broadly similar at both primary and post-primary levels. But many parents, as well as the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, are not happy with them. Logan says the Department of Education and Skills (DES) has failed in its responsibility to introduce a proper school-complaints process, and the National Parents’ Council (Primary) is deeply unhappy with the current procedure.
Complaints made against schools tend to concern how peer bullying is handled; decisions relating to expulsions and suspensions; issues around school transport or special needs resources; and teacher behaviour or attendance. More seriously, it is not uncommon for schools to receive complaints alleging bullying by a teacher, or the principal, against a student.
The procedure is clear: parents or guardians should approach the class teacher and try to resolve the complaint. This usually works. When it does not, the next step is to go to the principal. After this, it’s on to the chair of the board of management, followed by the board of management itself.
School complaints procedures were negotiated between teacher unions and the school management bodies. Áine Lynch, CEO of the NPC (Primary), says it is time for a change. “We are not happy with the complaints procedure and have fundamental concerns about how it operates. This is a mechanism for parents to follow within a school and yet neither parents, nor the national body that represents parents, were ever consulted.”
The set-up can be very intimidating for parents, says Lynch. “The initial stages of a complaint have an informal sense, but as soon as a parent or guardian is not happy at that level, they must put their complaint in writing to the chair of the board of management. They find themselves thrust into an adversarial system which can be intimidating and daunting, and then drop their child off to the very people they are complaining about.”
Lynch says too many schools are not following through on their own investigations and procedures, and this poses a dilemma for her organisation. “We are being asked to advise parents to follow a complaints procedure we do not agree with.”
What changes does the NPC want? “Each school should have its own complaints procedure, and parents should be consulted about it,” says Lynch. “There are better restorative models out there, for handling complaints, which address the problem in a context where everyone needs to carry on together in the school community.”
If a parent is unhappy with the outcome of a school complaint at board of management level they can bring it to the Ombudsman for Children, but the Ombudsman can only recommend policy changes and cannot find against any named individual.
The Ombudsman for Children’s 2012 report highlights a number of problems parents encountered with schools.
In one instance, two sets of parents contacted her office about the same issue in the same primary school. Both children were diagnosed with learning and behavioural difficulties and both felt that end-of-term and classroom reporting and feedback was impacting negatively on their children. They also felt that recommendations in occupational therapy and psychological reports were not being implemented. The parents withdrew their children. The Ombudsman found that although the school was pro-active in creating educational plans, the tone of their reporting was negative and, wrongly, benchmarked the children against their peers. The school agreed to make changes, although the children did not return.
The number of complaints to the Ombudsman against schools is on the rise: there were 170 in 2008, 270 in 2010, and 428 in 2012. Many are referred back to the school if the complainant has not tried to have the issue addressed locally. The proportion of complaints relating to education is also up, from 37 per cent in 2011 to 47 per cent in 2012. The majority relate to primary schools, with some made against the DES. The DES plays no role in the day-to-day running of schools. Section 28 of the 1998 Education Act gives power to the Minister for Education to implement a complaints procedure, but this power has consistently been ceded to teacher unions and school management. While most schools have signed up to a complaints procedure, they are not under any legal obligation to do so. Some have given it the two fingers.