How to deal with parental complaints

Parental complaints are getting more frequent and more vitriolic. Explore how best to deal with them, including the Government guidance.

Parental complaints are nothing new, but in recent years, the frequency of these complaints has increased significantly in schools all over the country. And unfortunately, many of these complaints have become much stronger, to the point of aggression.

Knowing how to deal with these complaints in a way that both defuses any tension and addresses any issues can be difficult, but it’s an important function for every school and governing body. In this blog, we’ll explore the types of complaints schools have to deal with, and different strategies for handling them.

Parent complaining to teacher

What are the most common parental complaints?

As any experienced member of education staff will know, the range of complaints that parents might have is virtually limitless. But the most common complaints tend to arise in these seven areas:

  • Bullying: a perceived failure to deal with bullying issues adequately
  • School exclusion: not handling an exclusion well, either of the parents’ child or another child excluded because of an incident involving their own
  • Communication with parents: the ways in which sensitive or confidential information is sent by the school to parents
  • Staff conduct: parental dissatisfaction around how a staff member has treated or talked to their child
  • SEND: the length of time SEND pupil Education and Health Care plans take to be established and approved
  • Governor conduct: how behaviour or statements made by governors impact the reputation of the school or members of staff
  • Headteacher/chair decisions: the quality of education and service the parents’ child is receiving, such as being put in the wrong class

Handling parental complaints

Dealing with these complaints can be a tricky balancing act, where staff have to do what’s right for themselves, the school and the education of the child, but without making the situation worse. We recommend these four tips for striking that balance:

  • Don’t take complaints personally: it’s vital not to let parental complaints sink in too deep – it’s likely that most issues arise from parents caring about their child more than wanting to attack an individual. Remembering this can ensure that staff aren’t too defensive in their response.
  • Take concerns seriously and empathetically: make sure you give all complaints a fair chance and try to view things from the complainant’s standpoint. This can avoid any need for more formal action such as panel hearings, and enable issues to be resolved at a much earlier stage.
  • Use informal, face-to-face contact if possible: contact by phone call or email isn’t always ideal for complaint resolution because it removes the chance for both parties to work through problems together. Informal chats that take place face-to-face enable a much softer, collaborative approach.
  • Explore formal action if necessary: if the above doesn’t generate the desired results, then it’s important to explore all the more structured options available, including ensuring that complaints are made in writing, and engaging mediation services where needed.
Couple making complaint to teacher

Model complaint procedures

The Department for Education has produced model procedures for handling complaints, which have been updated in Spring 2022. The DfE school complaints procedure is split into two, depending on the type of education body involved:

  • Two-step procedure for maintained schools: under this process, complaints are heard first by the headteacher, and then by a panel of three governors
  • Three-step procedure for academies and trusts: this process starts with informal contact before being escalated to the headteacher and then the panel of governors. There can even be a fourth step where trustees are involved as a final stage in dealing with a complaint.

The detailed information set out in each of these processes should be reviewed thoroughly, and all schools, academies and trusts should review their complaint handling procedures to ensure they are effective and compliant. In particular, it’s important to make the distinction between what is legally required, what schools have the power to do if they see fit, and what is recommended good practice. It’s also worth remembering that cases have to be brought within a three-month period of the related incident or last in a series of incidents.