Handling difficult parents


Schools often have to handle high expectations and demands from their parents, but what happens when things get out of hand? Helen Otty and Andrew McGregor look at what lessons can be learned from a recent legal case involving a private school.

All attentive parents want the best for their children and schools depend on their support and assistance. Teachers and pastoral staff understand the anxiety that parents can feel when trying to ensure a good standard of education for their children, but on occasions, mothers and fathers can move past dutiful concern and become demanding and potentially hostile. 

What the law says

In the recent case of T vs Hall Schools of Wimbledon LLP, the trial judge made various observations in respect of two parents’ unreasonable conduct. 

The matter concerned a breach of contract dispute against an independent private school. The claimant parents sought damages and an injunction against the defendant school. 

They alleged that the school had agreed that it would provide a supportive reference following the withdrawal of their children. However, the school contended that it had agreed to provide positive references with respect to the children, but not the parents.

The parents had placed their children at the school during 2009, and by the summer of 2012, the relationship between them and the school had deteriorated so much that the institution terminated the pupils’ places. 

The children’s new school subsequently contacted Hall Schools of Wimbledon LLP for a reference. Hall Schools of Wimbledon LLP provided a reference for the children but refused to provide one for the parents. 

The parents then issued a claim for damages and a permanent injunction against the defendant in respect of an alleged breach of contract.

The school described the mother and father as being “distinctly troublesome”, breaching the contract that stated the school reserved the right to terminate “when the parent or guardian of that child is guilty of serious or persistent misconduct in relation to a pupil, a member of staff, another parent or to the reputation of the school”.

The parents argued that they were simply acting as “normal concerned parents who wished the best for their children”, and had not been guilty of serious or persistent misconduct.

While the full details of their behaviour were not reported, the judgement did state that the misconduct stemmed from the parents’ verbal communication, which was deemed to be “voluminous, relentless, confrontational and unreasonable”. Furthermore, the judge disapproved of their lack of self-awareness and self-centred approach to dealing with the school.

In the report, the parents’ hostility was said to have stemmed from the mother being “unusually obsessed by her daughter’s perceived lack of success”.

This can be the crux of many disputes between parents and schools, as they want to somehow guarantee their child’s achievement. Some can be unwilling to appreciate that a school has other pupils’ interests to protect as well, and may blame their child’s lack of achievement on the school’s failing. The court dismissed the parents’ claim for an injunction and damages against the school.

Steps for resolving the situation

First, it is important to make clear that the law is on the side of schools when dealing with difficult parents. The judge in the T vs Hall Schools of Wimbledon LLP case stated that: “It must be remembered that this was a school and not a company. The primary focus was education.

“There were times during the cross-examination of both (the headteacher and his PA) that I felt they were being unwarrantably criticised for their absence of notes or form of notes that might have been more appropriate had they been the secretary to the Cabinet or the company secretary of a large PLC.”

The courts are aware of the pressure on schools and do not expect them to meet the robust procedures that would be expected of large corporations.

Recording evidence

That being said, schools should keep detailed notes of any unacceptable behaviour displayed by parents. This will form the basis of any evidence required should the school wish to terminate a child’s place, or when considering criminal proceedings. 

Therefore, all staff members dealing with difficult parents that have displayed threatening behaviour should be made aware of their responsibility to document their conduct.

Following on from this, any meetings between the school and parents should be adequately witnessed. This will enable detailed minutes to be created in order to confirm everything that took place. Contemporaneous evidence such as this can prove salient at a trial to help demonstrate the nature of discussions between all parties.

Protecting staff

It should be noted that, if parents are overly aggressive, a school should consider the health and safety ramifications of subjecting teachers to potentially dangerous scenarios.

With this in mind, staff members should not be left alone with parents who demonstrate threatening behaviour and should be made aware of the volatile nature of the individuals they are dealing with.

Clear policy

Schools should adopt a policy that highlights their stance on hostile conduct by parents. It should clearly detail what constitutes misconduct and the school’s procedure in dealing with such actions. 

Keeping a broadly worded policy will help encompass a variety of behaviour that may be defined as misconduct. The policy should be easily accessible and all parents should be made aware of it when enrolling their children at the school.

The document should be reviewed regularly to ensure continued effectiveness. For example, many dated policies do not adequately deal with the increasing popularity of social media and other types of parental misconduct that can stem from its use.

Escalating behaviour

Written warnings should be given to parents explaining that their behaviour is deemed unacceptable and, if it continues, that the school will need to terminate their child’s place. 

Providing them with sufficient notice of the likely ramifications should deter them from continuing any hostile behaviour.

If, at any stage, a parent’s actions become so severe that they amount to harassment, or there is threatened or actual physical violence, then the school should notify the authorities immediately. 

Criminal sanctions will be available in the most extreme cases and may be the only cause of action available to adequately protect staff members.

Prioritising an education for all

Schools are required to continually balance the competing needs of all children against the background of parents who want the best for their own.

Although most will adopt a measured and supportive role, some behaviour can be unreasonable and hostile. In these unusual situations, schools do not need to “grin and bare it”, they can, in the most extreme cases, consider ending the student’s time at the school to provide an effective solution to the problem.

  • Helen Otty is an associate and Andrew McGregor a solicitor in the education sector group at business law firm DWF.


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