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.
The Ombudsman for Children has said repeatedly that this is not good enough. In a 2011 report, she drew attention to St Joseph’s College in Tipperary, which refused admission to a pregnant 16-year-old, and again refused her admission after her baby’s birth because “this is not a school for single mothers”. In her report, the Ombudsman said: “The [DES]has not directed that schools follow a specific complaints procedure . . . resulting in no regulated complaints process in schools.” St Joseph’s College characterised complaints policies as “frills” which it said it was not obliged to put in place.
The Ombudsman’s 2010 report also raised concerns that the statutory arrangements for when a complaints procedure had not been put into operation. In March 2012, the Ombudsman reiterated her concerns to a Dáil committee, and called on the Minister for Education to implement the relevant legislation which is already in place. Parents were coming to her office with complaints about schools because “they have nowhere else to go” when complaints were not addressed at school level.
There is no requirement on a board of management to report on complaints and, consequently, there is no centralised record of complaints. According to the procedures at second level, even if a complaint against a teacher is upheld, the file “may be removed from the school records following agreement between all the parties involved.”
Figures from the Ombudsman for Children’s office show that parents lodge 75 per cent of complaints against schools, with three to four per cent coming from children. These tend to be children who do not live with their parents. Complaints have also been made by extended family members and professionals working directly with children, including teachers, principals and social workers. In 2012, the NPC answered 88 calls from parents about the school complaints procedure; 42 calls were from parents concerned that a teacher was bullying the child, while 25 related to allegations of bullying by school principals.
Schools are increasingly subject to complaints about a lack of places, special needs resources, access to learning support, and resources such as books or technology, as well as overcrowded classes.
The INTO says these issues are outside the control of schools, laying the blame for underfunding of primary schools at the door of the DES. The school, and usually the principal, has to deal with the complaints and is effectively fronting for the DES.
There are signs of change on the horizon. New guidelines on bullying will require schools to have regulations in place. A mooted Parents’ Charter, proposed by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, would give parents more power in school management.
Diarmuid de Paor, deputy general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), accepts the relationship between the complaints procedure and school discipline needs to be tightened.
Contrary to popular belief, teachers can be dismissed for issues relating to competence or conduct. The teacher unions say their members may be subject to vexatious or petty complaints, but are more concerned that complaints are dealt with fairly and impartially.
Although the system is confidential, a complaint by one parent can quickly become public knowledge, particularly in a small community, damaging the reputation of teacher and school.
“A breach of confidentiality although rare can have a negative impact on an innocent teacher’s reputation,” says one senior INTO official.
De Paor says there is a new culture of children’s rights in Ireland, which is to be welcomed, but is concerned that some parents can go to extremes. “I was on a board of management when a child in the school was punished with extra homework and complained of emotional abuse; the case was referred to the HSE. That is not to say that there are not genuine complaints, but there needs to be fairness, and we need to avoid a culture whereby a school is afraid of being strict. Teachers have to consider all the children in their class.”
ONE MOTHER’S STORY
Seán entered second class with good reports. Towards the end of that year, his parents, Lily and Ben, found themselves in a garda station, alleging Seán’s teacher had been physically aggressive with him, an allegation “vehemently” denied by the teacher.
Relations between the parents and the school had broken down, culminating in a complaint to the board of management.
Seán’s parents say it was not properly investigated. The school denies this. What happened?
In first class, Seán’s teacher identified he might need extra resources, but said that he was doing well in class. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was suspected but not formally diagnosed.
“All was fine until Christmas, when I felt something was wrong,” Lily says. “He was anxious. His breathing changed, he was panicked and he had a persistent cough. But he denied anything was wrong.”
Eventually, the child admitted he was upset. His teacher was asking his classmates, on a daily basis, who would like to sit beside him. On occasion, he sat by himself. In response to the complaint, the teacher said Seán was not being singled out and that there were an uneven number of children in class, so it seemed a good solution.
He was made go and get his coat before his classmates got theirs; the teacher says that this was to avoid trouble in the cloakroom.
She discontinued these practices when Seán’s parents expressed concern. Meanwhile, Lily heard from another mother that a number of boys in the class were being mean to Seán, and had taken it upon themselves to “police” him in the school yard.
The teacher said Seán was being scapegoated and she was concerned to improve his “reputation”.
Relations between the teacher and pupil appeared to worsen over time. At Communion practice, he was “dancing and pumping his open fists in the air with two fingers extended on each hand in the peace sign.” He accidentally banged a girl’s mouth and her baby tooth fell out.
The child alleged the teacher had been physically rough with him a number of times, suggesting a loss of control which she denied. The parents approached the Gardaí and the allegation of assault was raised. The parents held back on pursuing a formal complaint but it was logged.
The parents made a complaint to the board of management. They received an acknowledgement, with the teacher’s response, more than three weeks later. In his letter, the chairman agreed to bring the matter to the board and asked the parents to consider the teacher’s response.
He also offered to arrange a meeting with the teacher, which the parents had already refused.
The parents believed the complaint would be investigated by the board in accordance with the school’s stated policy. The parents took no further action and were not informed of the progress or outcome of any investigation.
The school says this is because “the parents did not engage with the agreed procedures. However, the school is still willing to complete the agreed procedure.”
Lily and Ben moved their son to a new school; to date, Seán has had no problems there. “I never felt our concerns were listened to or taken seriously,” says Lily.
“I used to worry about Seán in the yard. Will he get on with the other boys, will he have friends? I never thought the danger was from within the classroom, with his teacher. Parents need to start questioning what goes on behind closed doors.”
The Irish Times has seen correspondence between the parents and the school. Names have been changed to protect the identities of all parties.