When I first became a school governor six years ago, I was taken aback to discover that the thing which the school called its “complaints policy” (when they actually managed to locate a dusty photocopy at the back of a filing cabinet) was something which would barely be worthy of the name in most other public or private sector organisations.
A leap too far
It told you to complain to the Head, then complain to the Chair of Governors and then escalate your problem to the Secretary of State – definitely a leap too far. This long-winded, defensive document conveyed the clear message to parents that there was no real point in complaining but if they insisted on doing so then they could not expect anyone to make it easy for them. Behind it lay the depressing fact that beyond the governing body there really was nowhere to take their complaint and whatever they did, nothing much was likely to come of it.
No wonder few complain
Under current arrangements local authorities can get involved (if they want) but they don’t actually have any power to require action by the school and no express legal role in considering complaints. The Secretary of State’s hands are tied too and there are very few circumstances in which he or she can intervene. Small wonder few people complain. We know that many people believe that it would make no difference to anything if they complained about health and social care services. If parents of school children were to be asked the same question I suspect an even higher percentage would give the same answer.
Hip! Hip! Hooray! for DCSF
So it is pleasing to see that finally the Department for Children, Schools and Families has decided to address this issue and issue a consultation document seeking views on its proposals for what looks to be a much improved approach to complaints. It is also pleasing to see that the department explicitly refers to the need to learn lessons from other areas of government such as health and local authorities.
The Children’s Plan explains what the department is trying to achieve:
“Parents’ complaints will be managed in straightforward and open way and as many issues as possible will be resolved quickly. Parents, particularly those who may not be so readily engaged, will understand the route to follow when they have a complaint. We will review what more can be done to streamline and strengthen these arrangements” (paragraph 3.2).
The first main proposal in the consultation is that efforts should be made to ensure a quick and effective response to complaints within schools supported by an effective system of local mediation if complainants remain unhappy once the issue has gone to the governing body. This sounds like a good idea but the consultation document rather amusingly (and with a terse nod towards those scary teachers’ unions) suggests that this should be done without imposing “any additional burdens on school staff, leaders or governing bodies.” This seems fairly unrealistic.
At the moment schools may be recording complaints (although unlike other sectors they are not formally recorded, analysed or reported anywhere). Good schools will certainly give parents the time of day and have a chat about their concerns but knowing that the complaint is never likely to be escalated and that if it is, it will never get anywhere, means that there is no real incentive for schools to handle complaints properly or provide any effective redress. If they were to start doing it properly there would inevitably be implications in terms of data recording; reviewing and tightening up other areas of school administration; training staff and governors and taking time to talk to people. Not to mention the fact that they might even have to change the way they do things in response to complaints. Real and ongoing input will be required, so schools and governors should not be encouraged to bury their heads in the sand and think they can just get away with ticking a few boxes.
The second major proposal is for an independent complaints review service, probably hosted by the local government ombudsman. We will be taking a longer look at the implications of this – the LGO does not have the same powers as other Ombudsmen such as the Health or the Financial Services Ombudsman to force compliance and can only name and shame.
Unified Data available to all
One thing which is not mentioned in the consultation document is whether there should be processes for collecting and analysing complaint data at a local or national level. It happens in the health service; the police and utility companies have to do it. But it is a peculiar feature of English and Welsh state schools that they seem to be left to get on with it without taxpayers being given much meaningful information about what is really going on behind the school walls. As we are all perhaps all beginning to realise, SATs don’t tell us much. “Choice” may be the government’s current mantra for parents but how can parents make informed choices with so little meaningful information available to them? No wonder they end up relying on school gate gossip. Ofsted reports can be useful but are often so infrequent as to completely fail to notice when schools nosedive into chaos and there are really very few other measures of their effectiveness or user satisfaction. Other public services such as local government and the health service are inspected and judged year after year and required, as part of this process, to provide copious amounts of data including data about complaints. So maybe this is something that needs to be added in order to provide some real accountablity to parents and taxpayers.
Things may be about to change. It is time for schools to sit up straight and pay attention.
MAC will be drafting a full response to the consultation in time for the 21 November deadline. Meanwhile let us know what you think.