Schools need more protection against vexatious complaints

28 May 2018, 5:00

There may not be many of them, but one or two unreasonable parents can make running a school very tough indeed, writes Russell Holland

As an education lawyer, I see it as my job to help schools get on with the most important job,  teaching children, by making legal issues as simple as possible to deal with. Coming from a family of teachers, it was almost inevitable that I should be drawn into this area of law.

It is with increasing concern that I have lately been spending more time advising teachers with the legal issues that arise when managing difficult parents. As a result of my work, I have come to the opinion that reform is needed.

I want to be clear that the overwhelming majority of parents are completely reasonable. Concerns can be addressed effectively, which can help strengthen the relationship between parent and school. The problem I am talking about is the ability of a determined but unreasonable parent to take up completely disproportionate amounts of a school’s time and resource by pursuing vexatious complaints. The present policy framework does not do enough to protect schools in such a scenario.

There is a far greater risk of unreasonable parents doing very real harm to schools than there is of schools making serious errors

There is nothing to prevent an insistent but unreasonable parent from sending multiple e-mails, making multiple complaints, demanding that the matter be considered by the chair of governors and subsequently by a full panel (including an independent member). This will often involve vast quantities of paperwork and can include endless e-mail trails full of inappropriate commentary or personal attacks on staff – not to mention on social media.

When such complaints fail, a new complaint can be made to Ofsted, the DfE, the ESFA, the local authority or MP, and anyone else they can get to listen to them. This can be accompanied by a Freedom of Information or subject access request and the occasional threat of legal action. The whole process can become utterly morale-sapping, and means time and resource become too focused on one or two unreasonable individuals at the expense of the wider school.

While a school does have power to class someone as vexatious and can therefore limit contact (or potentially even ban them from a school site), this doesn’t prevent it from having to respond to further enquiries from third-party agencies. I have had examples where a parent dissatisfied with how a member of staff spoke to their child unreasonably raises the situation as a safeguarding concern, leading to an unpleasant call to the school from a government agency demanding answers without apparently even considering that the complaint might be vexatious.

I believe reform is needed to the law and policy in relation to complaints. The overriding principle behind that reform would be that teachers and governors should be trusted to treat people fairly and reasonably in a straightforward and proportionate complaints framework.

The complaints policy should consist of two levels: firstly a complaint to the head, but if a person remains dissatisfied, they should at a second juncture be entitled to a written response from the chair of governors or trustees. That should be it.

If I was not happy with a supermarket, could I demand my complaint be considered by the manager, a company director, or even at a full panel hearing with the board of directors? Of course not.

Schools and government agencies must be given clear guidance that vexatious complainants should be dealt with swiftly and proportionately. Schools should be actively encouraged to take robust steps to protect staff and avoid spending disproportionate amounts of time on unreasonable parents. There is a far greater risk of unreasonable parents doing very real harm to schools than there is of schools making serious errors.

Teachers and governors are well intentioned people who want to educate children. They need and deserve to be respected and supported in performing this vitally important role. A reformed complaints process accompanied by appropriate guidance could go a long way to helping them do the job without having to worry about the damage an unreasonable parent can do.

Russell Holland is a Barrister at Michelmores 

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  1. Brian

    I would be interested to know whether all schools are receiving “vexatious” complaints or whether this phenomena, if it indeed exists is limited to a few schools only. If the latter then perhaps one should ask the question….how is it that some schools manage to avoid attracting these complaints when others seem to fail dismally.

    One only needs to look at some of the issues that have been raised over the last year or two regarding schools pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour when dealing with children in their care and parents.

    To have an issue investigation process that has two levels as you describe would for me be woefully inadequate.

    Your example of being unhappy with a supermarket is perhaps indicative of the way that you see this issue. Even if we accept the analogy, the consumer would of course quite quite move out of the organisation in question and address their concerns to trade organisations, perhaps an ombudsman, trading standards etc. at which they would receive an impartial hearing and adjudication.

    Children however cannot be compared with products purchased from supermarkets. There is plenty of evidence that the unequal power relationships children finds themselves in can lead to them being extremely vulnerable and in potentially dangerous situations. My personal view would be that giving more autonomy to schools and chains has increased not decreased the risks.

    You yourself recognise what most of us teachers know, that the “vexatious” complaints arise from a very small number of parents and to change the whole system to accommodate these few cases would be wholly disproportionate in my view.

    All organisations have to be able to deal with vexatious complaints, and the answer is not to avoid external scrutiny and close them down. The answer is to increase external scrutiny and open them up.

    While we agree that there may be an issue with a small number of parents, we disagree on how best to tackle the situation.

    • Paul Martin

      Of course the opening up of complaints, vexatious or otherwise, is a fool’s errand: GDPR has made folk nervous enough as it is. No HT is going to say let’s bring out the pigeons for the benefit of some odd parents to sink their teeth into.

  2. Martin Matthews

    Every school writes or adopts a complaints policy which has a section about vexatious complaints. This issue is already covered.
    We have to strike a balance between what is vexatious to a school and necessary to a parent. Many parents of SEND children make complaints about the provision for their child (often justified) and schools should follow due diligence to investigate thoroughly.
    There is also the issue of schools having to meet the Nolan principles. As a public sector organisation the standards in public life mean things not only have to be correct, they have to be seen to be correct.
    We naturally expect a higher standard.

    • Jenta Rogers

      I agree with you about the 7 principles of public office. It’s just a pity that head teachers and governing bodies pay lip service to it. I have seen schools flouting the law in respect of exclusions, isolations, gdpr and believe they are above the law which is the gold standard. Unfortunately there is abuse that goes on in some of these establishments because of ignorance but some is deliberate just as there is with some parents registered as habitual and vexatious complainants. There needs to be an independent and impartial complaints system so parents can access that about their concerns before a school is allowed to register a parent as a habitual and vexatious complainant.

  3. Thomas O'Toole

    So I may be wrong here but what is the point of a complaints policy if the head or chair can just decide for themselves whether a parent is being vexatious or not just because half the time they can’t be bothered to meet parents in the middle I’d love to fill you in on my children’s school and some of the stuff they turn a blind eye to

  4. Derek Wardle

    I hope that all those people who have expressed an opinion are school governors, or they should become one. Then they will be in the position of being able to deal with theses issues and show the way for others.

  5. Facebook hate comments targeted at schools is definitely on the rise. But I worry about vexatious complaints against staff which have no truth to them, go to ofsted as a safeguarding concern then lado. Staff are becoming more reluctant to challenge students in case allegations are made against them. The effect on the well-being of staff is enormous. I can see parents running schools in the future if reforms are not made.