The Rise of Parental Complaints

Managing the rise of parental complaints can have a huge impact on leadership in schools. Our Director of HR & Education Strategy, Rachel Foster, shares expert advice to help you respond effectively to concerns and ensure matters are resolved.
A teacher holding open a book and showing the page to a pupil.
Share Post:

Interacting with parents is fundamental for any school, from day-to-day queries to formal complaints. It is natural that parents may from time to time be concerned about some aspect of their child’s education or welfare at school. A school, like any other organisation, will sometimes receive feedback from parents that is less than positive. However, formal complaints are increasing in frequency and complexity with school leaders devoting a significant amount of time to their resolution, in an era when resources are already extremely stretched.

The Department for Education (DfE) revealed that in 2022/23 they received 14,900 complaints about schools, almost a 25% increase on the previous year. Prior to the pandemic, the DfE received around 10,300 complaints in 2019/20.

According to Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, the “unwritten agreement” between parents and schools in England has broken since the Covid crisis. When delivering her final annual report, Spielman recently said she had noticed a disturbing “shift in attitudes” among pupils and parents.

The HR service at One Education has seen a significant increase in the number of schools looking for support with parental complaints; from queries to our helpline to hands-on support regarding communication with parents, as well as meetings, including formal mediation, to aid resolution.

The focus of the complaints we have dealt with over the last year, coming from various types of educational establishments, will no doubt be reflected across the country:

  • Headteacher 37%
  • Teacher 37%
  • TA 16%
  • LO 5%
  • Others 5%

There is obviously a difference between parental concerns and formal complaints. A concern may be treated as an expression of worry or doubt over an issue for which reassurances are sought. Parental concerns ought to be handled, if at all possible, without the need for formal procedures. School leaders and indeed all school staff are used to managing these interactions on a daily basis. It is in everyone’s interest that these concerns are resolved at the earliest possible stage. Schools need to take informal concerns seriously, as careful communication with parents at this stage can stop the flow of consistent complaints and even prevent escalation to more aggressive behaviour.

We recognise that parental concerns give rise to stressful situations for all those involved; the families and the school staff themselves. Training staff in how to respond and manage these occurrences can “nip matters in the bud” and create a culture of open communication with this key stakeholder group. Timeliness and effective communication is essential when managing either informal concerns or formal complaints.

A complaint may be generally recognised as a statement of dissatisfaction, either about actions that have been taken or a lack of action. Parental complaints need to be considered and resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible. When reviewing schools’ complaints procedures, we may recommend that schools amend their time limits if they are unreasonably excessive or restrictive. Even if you find that a complaint is without merit or unfounded, you could still be criticised for not dealing with it within your published timescales and remember to prioritise complaints even outside of term time.

Each school must have a distinct complaints policy, a guidance document is insufficient. While schools are free to adopt their Local Authority’s model policy, it must be tailored to the individual school. In accordance with Section 29(1) of the Education Act 2002, all maintained schools and maintained nursery schools must have and publish procedures to deal with all complaints relating to their school and to any community facilities or services that the school provides, for which there are no separate (statutory) procedures. Academies must meet the requirements of the Education (Independent School Standards (England)) Regulations 2014. This policy needs to be published on the website.

The policy needs to be clear about the process, but also what isn’t covered. Your complaints procedure should not cover things such as admissions, exclusions, HR matters i.e. grievance/disciplinary/ capability, whistleblowing, child protection and statutory assessments. There should be separate published policies and procedures for handling appeals, complaints and procedures in relation to these. The DfE has published guidance on best practice for schools to manage complaint procedures.

Occasionally, despite all stages of the complaint procedure having been followed, there will be times when the parent remains dissatisfied. If a parent tries to re-open the same issue, you can inform them that the procedure has been completed and that the matter is now closed. If the parent contacts you again on the same issue, the correspondence may then be viewed as ‘serial’ or ‘persistent’ and you may choose not to respond. However, you should not mark a complaint as ‘serial’ before the parent has completed the procedure, unless your published serial complaint criteria apply. If there is an element of new evidence or a fresh issue / event as part of the ongoing communication then this can’t be ignored – you have to separate the ‘complaint’ from the ‘complainant’. Schools should not refuse to accept further correspondence or complaints from an individual they have had repeat or excessive contact with. Schools may find it useful to establish a policy for managing serial and unreasonable complaints, which we recommend is included in the school’s published procedure.

There will be occasions when a school can stop responding — if you have taken every reasonable step to address the complainant’s concerns AND the complainant has been given a clear statement of your position and their options. Or if the complainant contacts you repeatedly, making substantially the same points each time. The case to stop responding is stronger if this can be evidenced by a detailed audit trail. But you should not stop responding just because an individual is difficult to deal with or asks complex questions.

The impact of social media has added to the pressure and can steadily increase the number and complexity of complaints. Social media can sometimes result in ‘group’ complaints stemming from WhatsApp groups and other forums set up specifically related to the issues in questions. Group complaints can make it more difficult to manage abusive parents or declare complaints closed. Instead, you should deal with parents’ complaints separately and hold individual meetings.

The resource impact and effect on the wellbeing of all staff either named or involved in the management of the complaints can never be underestimated, including governors or trustees at hearing stages. Sometimes a communication strategy for persistent correspondents is advised regarding daily interactions from reception staff, class teachers, DSL and other senior leaders for addressing who and what is expected including response times. If an individual’s behaviour is a cause for concern, they can be asked to leave school premises and even be barred from the school site, as an employer the school has a duty of care for all its staff.

It must be remembered that schools and academies can utilise complaints in a positive way too! A bit like a debrief or “wash down” after a critical incident. School leaders can affirm what works well and praise positive actions by staff. But the complaints process itself enables leaders to also assess the robustness of school processes, practices, and communication by identifying faults and testing internal systems. Assumptions that processes are still working and applied consistently is often costly and reviewing them from other stakeholders’ point of view can be beneficial.

Ultimately, an individual schools’ effectiveness at handling complaints is likely to depend upon a combination of factors, including: the robustness of their complaints policies and procedures, the ethos / outlook of the school towards parental complaints, the level of access to training for staff; and the relationships with the local authority and other external partners.

Our HR experts are highly experienced in helping schools manage parental issues and complaints from all sources. If you would like any more information about complaints policy and procedures, please reach out to our HR Team to find out how we can help.

Get in touch.

Enquiry Form

Please complete the form below and we will get in contact as soon as we can to help you with your query.

In other news

Login to your account

Search our website

Request a brochure

Please fill in your details below to receive our free brochure.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Please fill in your details below to sign up to our newsletter.

Request a call back

Please fill in your details below to receive a call back from a member of our team.