Even if you're the most confident of complainers on the high street or in restaurants, raising issues with your child's school can be daunting. Most of us want to balance fighting our child's corner, with being fair and not turning into 'that parent' (the one the teachers roll their eyes about in the staffroom and avoid at the school gates). It's all made more complicated still by the fact we're complaining about occurrences we probably didn't witness or experience first hand.
Plus, whereas when you complain in a shop or to a utility supplier, you won't usually have to see or speak to that person again (because you can vote with your feet and take your business elsewhere), with education that's rarely an easy option. Moving your child's school is obviously a lot more complicated than swapping electricity company, so you might be there for years to come yet. Maintaining a healthy relationship benefits all concerned.
So what is the best way to deal with problems when they arise at school?
Don't rush in amidst the heat of the moment
Even the most rational of us can become emotional when our children's happiness and wellbeing is at stake but no matter how much your protective instincts are urging you to pile into school, pounding fists on desks demanding action, wise parents take a deep breath and reflect first.
Think of it as "keep calm and don't carry on just yet". You'll almost always receive a better response if you can remain cool, calm and collected (although doubtless one or two parents have found blubbing across the headteacher's desk galvanizes action!)
Obviously if your child is desperately unhappy, worried or scared, you won't want to wait a few days to deal with it but even then, attempt to hold back long enough to at least settle down a little if you're raging with anger.
Grabbing a piece of paper and writing notes for yourself, with a list of questions you need answers to and what you know about events is a good way to clear your head, according to mum of three, Emma.
"I'm a grown woman who runs my own business but when I have issues with school, I still feel overwhelmed at times. I've found I can go in feeling much more confident if I write some notes beforehand.
"It keeps me focused when I'm there. I also write notes during the meeting so I can remember what we've agreed and think it signals to the teacher that I will be following up if it doesn't happen as discussed."
Consider what your objective is
What outcome would you like to occur as the result of your complaint?
Perhaps if your son is being picked on by a pupil they sit next to in the classroom, it could simply be that you would like the teacher to consider separating them. If you're concerned your daughter is falling behind and not receiving sufficient support, your aim might be to get an assessment of where she is at and then a view of what can be done to help her both at home and in class.
Bear in mind though that your aim needs to be realistic in the context of a class of 30+ children and budgets and resources which might well be under pressure.
Choose your timing and method of communication carefully
Teachers will invariably be rushed and distracted at dropping off time and keen to supervise getting all their pupils into class promptly. It's best to approach them only if the matter really cannot wait until after school.
Gillian, a teacher in North London, advises that picking up times can be less rushed but if the subject matter is at all sensitive or will take longer than a minute or two to discuss, "ask for an appointment after school, rather than expecting the teacher to talk to you there and then with the other children around.
This also prevents gossipy parents from earwigging your conversation – otherwise the entire class will know exactly what's going on by the time the bell rings for school tomorrow morning...
Encourage your child to fight their own corner (where appropriate)
Could your son or daughter attempt to communcate a minor issue, such as finding their maths too easy or difficult, out for themselves by talking to the teacher? This is unlikely with some younger children and won't work for more significant problems, but for older ones, helping them to help themselves is a useful life skill and adds to their confidence.
Be wary of emailing in haste
It can be tempting to ping questions and complaints to school by email due to the convenience factor, especially if you're at work so not doing school runs, but again tread carefully.
Emails are so open to misinterpretation minus body language and tone of voice – don't press send too quickly. Sit on the draft email for a few hours and re-read it with a fresh eye to check it's pitched about right.
Go in to meetings with an open mind and a polite tone
Sally, a secondary school teacher in Yorkshire, recognises that sometimes things do go wrong and staff are to blame but adds "my real bug-bear about complaining parents is those who jump the gun and accuse a teacher of treating their child unfairly (for example if there has been a fight with another pupil) when they only have their child's version of what happened".
Circumstances aren't always as they are reported to us by our children. Kids can and do get in a muddle about who said what to whom. Even usually honest types could be fibbing or exaggerating.
Try not to present your gripes as a fait accompli but ask questions: "James has told me X happened, do you know what went on?" is better than assuming X absolutely definitely happened. If it didn't, you might undermine your argument or requests, or just feel plain silly.
Gillian warns against being too brusque: "No one likes to be spoken to rudely. Wording such as 'my child is feeling...because...could you look into it please and let me know how I can help them?' works well." It keeps things matter of fact and clearly states what's going on from your perspective.
No matter what's gone on, remain polite. My own son's school now has a notice up in the office declaring something along the lines of "would you like to be shouted at at work?" A fair point. Others have been known to ban parents who've been abusive to staff from entering school grounds.
Don't shoot the messenger
Homework workload just doubled or spellings no longer being sent home to learn? Some decisions or events might not have been the responsibility of the teacher at all but school-wide policy. The class teacher might not even agree with the new way of doing things - don't assume it's always their call.
Even the head teacher's hands might be tied if the local authority or Ofsted are monitoring aspects of school life – this is especially the case currently with fines for term-time holidays.
A common gripe from parents is that requests to send items into school, for dressing up days, charity collections and the like, aren't being received or are sent at the last minute. Yes, this could be the teacher's fault, but equally it might be the office didn't pass messages on.
Give the teacher a chance to explain or take action before going above their head to the head
Always a tricky one when something appears to have gone wrong in the classroom – do you go straight to the head or raise it with the teacher first?
Mostly it makes sense to speak to the teacher initially – again to let them have their say and find out their side the story.
That said, when you haven't received the answers you reasonably wanted, it can be time to go to make an appointment with the head teacher.
Know how to escalate things No luck in the head teacher's study? Consult your school's official complaints procedure – this should be published on the school website or you can ask to see it in the office.
The next step is normally to approach the governing body in writing. Depending on the subject of your complaint, your local authority education department, Citizen's Advice Bureau or a relevant charity/ support group might be able to provide advice on this stage of proceedings.
When putting pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – communicate what has happened so far, who you have already discussed matters with, and what action you would like to be taken now.
In all cases, it's important to go through the steps recommended in the complaints process, so for instance, the governing body will expect you to have met with the head teacher first to give them chance to address the problem.
Still no luck?
If the severity of your complaint warrants it and you've exhausted avenues with the head and governors, you can then approach an external body. Usually your next port of call would be the local council's department of education or children's services (do an internet search on the council name, education and complaints about schools for more information as details will vary by area).
Ofsted will only accept complaints which relate to a whole school, not an individual child or family. Last but not least you can contact the Secretary of State for Education.
What have your experiences of complaining to schools been?
Are you a teacher with advice for parents on how to raise issues fairly and effectively?
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