Diary of a headteacher: Handling parental complaints

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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A very difficult part of the job of a headteacher is handling parental or student complaints against staff – especially if we think the school is indeed at fault...

No one day is ever the same in teaching. This is a phrase we often hear when teachers are asked to recount the positive features of their profession. We like the unpredictability of what each day might present us with. It keeps us on our toes, challenges us and it means that our jobs are certainly never boring.

As a headteacher I often think that this premise is amplified considerably as the variety of curve balls that come your way can be so much more diverse.

Sometimes I will begin the day with a long to-do list that I don’t get anywhere near even starting due to a myriad of issues that arrive at my door or in my inbox.

The ability to think quickly is critical; the successful headteacher can remain calm and when required to make important decisions, often with one arm held behind their back.

There are times when these challenging situations involve complaints about members of staff from parents and students.

Such situations are often complicated and it is important to consider all of the information before arriving at a decision.
I am conscious of a couple of factors here – in one regard I want to back my staff and give them the support they need to do their jobs. However, in order to do this I have to be satisfied that they are actually “in the right”.

Communication with staff is key here and if you don’t get this right you run the risk of alienating your teachers, who will think that you automatically believe students and parents over them and that you don’t trust them.

It is all about how we communicate. I will always try and use a phrase such as “I have received this information from parent X, please can you provide me with your response and your account of events so that I can make a decision on how to progress this situation”.

Having one-to-one conversations with the staff involved helps to soften challenging situations and these are much more effective than relying on email, especially as sometimes written communication can appear harsh or stark or can be misunderstood.

Equally, any follow up communication with parents should happen face-to-face so that they understand you are treating the situation seriously and so that you can look them in the eye when you make your recommendations or decisions. It also means that you can respond to their reactions, positive or negative, immediately.

How do you respond though, when your staff have made an error in judgement or have clearly made a mistake in the way they have managed a situation? In a word: honesty.

Parents will always appreciate a headteacher having an open and honest conversation with them and being big and brave enough to admit when the school is at fault.

I will offer up a robust defence for my staff if I believe they have nothing to answer to in relation to a complaint, and there are times when parents have left my office very unhappy because they haven’t got the outcome that they were looking for.

However, if a member of my staff is at fault and the complaint is a legitimate one, I will always hold my hands up and say “on this occasion we haven’t been good enough, please accept our apologies and we will work hard to ensure we address these issues”.

I am sure we would all always hope that we don’t have to deal with such issues within our schools, but the reality is that our schools are full of human beings, and human beings will make mistakes, errors in judgement and poor decisions.

No school is perfect because no human is perfect – but how we respond to our mistakes is an important measure of an effective school.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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