The rise of the parent activist

From friendly feedback to badgering and bullying – how activist parents are battling schools

High levels of complaints paralyse leaders

“Would you enter a burning building, just to meet a government target?”

The question flashed up on screen during a webinar in January, attended by around 300 people, on ‘supporting school ‘refusal’ & attendance difficulties’ run by parent advocacy company Sunshine Support.

The Department for Education’s recent attendance campaign had infuriated families nationwide with its messaging that anxious children still need to attend school.

One mum described during the meeting how “physical interventions” at her son’s school had left him “traumatised” and thinking he was “going to be kidnapped”. “Schools are so corrupt,” she added.

Another recounted school staff coming to her home “unannounced” and threatening a fine for her daughter’s non-attendance, despite being “told about her needs”.

The child “hid in the wardrobe for weeks whenever the doorbell went,” she said.

A screenshot of an image shows during a webinar organised by Sunshine Support

A third parent explained how she’d had to give up fostering after many years following a prosecution for one child’s low school attendance. “I’ve been made to feel useless,” she told the group.

Sunshine Support, based in Derby, initiated a campaign last year for youngsters to go on ‘strike’ from their educational provision amid escalating discontent against schools.

Sunshine, a consultancy advising parents over SEND issues, is one of many groups where parents are rallying together to fight against school issues, including what they believe is over-reach from leaders in their attendance push.

The meeting provides a glimpse into the new post-pandemic battleground that is driving a wedge between schools and parts of their communities – destroying relationships and fuelling soaring numbers of complaints against staff.

Theresa Kerr from law firm Winckworth Sherwood

Swamped by complaints

Theresa Kerr, an education partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, says schools are “very aware” of social media groups and organisations “providing information that in some cases isn’t correct or is adversarial”.

She adds: “It can quickly escalate to a point where it’s very difficult for the school to deal with.”

Other examples seen by Schools Week include a parent posting about an issue in a SEND support group and being urged to send a subject access request (SAR) for emails between staff and records the school holds on their child.

Another parent was urged to complain to the MP, local councillors and the press in relation to a concern about their child’s exclusion.

Kerr says when parents “articulate their frustration” online, they “receive comments that might endorse their view”. They then feel vindicated but the responses may have been made without knowing the school’s account.

Education psychologist Dr Naomi Fisher says parents of children experiencing difficulties in school “tend to have [online] connections” with others in similar circumstances.

“Ten years ago, [parents] thought they were the only ones… it empowers them to realise it’s not just them,” she adds.

The consequences are stark. Complaints to Ofsted are up by one third since Covid. For secondary schools, complaints have risen 65 per cent – from 3,158 to 5,201 last year.

Meanwhile, the proportion of complaints deemed as “qualifying” – which means they raise potential wider concerns about a school – has remained similar (rising from 6.7 per cent to 7.5 per cent).

Schools North East, which represents schools in the region, said parents will “sometimes complain immediately” to Ofsted over “trivial and mundane issues”, while ignoring a school’s complaints procedures.

Kerr also says the threat of parents “going to Ofsted” is “commonly” being “used as something to hold over the school when a dispute isn’t resolved to their satisfaction”.

Government behaviour tsar Tom Bennett says: “Parents are often dissatisfied when schools do investigate if they find no fault, because [they] then feel that the school has ‘marked its own work.’ Which then leads to an Ofsted complaint.”

Complaints from parents to the Department for Education also soared from 1,013 in 2019-20, to 2,419 in 2021-22, figures seen by Schools Week show. No action was taken in nearly a fifth of cases.

Another route increasingly used by parents is referrals to the Teaching Regulation Agency, which are only intended for cases of ‘serious misconduct’ by teachers.

The number of referrals from the public rose from 167 to 300 between 2019-20 and 2022-23 – up 80 per cent – while complaints overall to the body rose just 13 per cent in that time.

But the share of those being investigated dropped from 41 per cent to 28 per cent – suggesting a rise in vexatious or unsubstantiated claims.

In some areas, school staff are also being reported in increasing numbers to their local authority designated officer (LADO), who manage allegations against adults working with children.

Kent Council recorded 817 such enquiries in 2022-23, a rise of 171 (26%) on the previous year, with most related to education issues.

Surrey’s referrals were up 16 per cent with families “becoming more aware of the LADO service and its role in safeguarding children”. 

Meanwhile, complaints relating to children with SEND to the Local Government Ombudsman have nearly tripled to 1,435 over the past five years. The Ombudsman has had to “turn away people who have turned to us for help”, a recent report reveals. “We cannot take on every complaint that falls within our remit. That is a difficult call for our dedicated staff to make”.

Claire Pannell Anthem Schools Trust<br>

Time taken away from teaching

The complexity of complaints is rising, too.

Claire Pannell, director of governance at Anthem Schools Trust, said more “complaint campaigns involving groups of parents” submitting SARs and freedom of information requests is “particularly disruptive and takes resources away from the frontline – our students”.

Bennett adds schools have “very limited capacity to respond in depth” due to staffing issues and says “high levels of complaints paralyses leaders when they should be running their school.”

One senior leader told Schools Week last week they’d just received a 780-page letter from one parent.

Kerr says most complaints she advises schools on relate to SEND issues.

“In a lot of cases, the school might be saying ‘we can’t meet need’ because they just don’t have the resources for a child with complex needs, and the parent is insistent that the school can,” she says.

Kerr’s advice for schools is to be quicker moving into the formal complaints process, which has a set procedure with timescales – but she adds “not all parents want to follow complaints policies, which can be a challenge”.

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett

Accusations of a blame game

But what do parents say? Sunshine Support’s founding director Chrissa Wadlow told parents she feels a “blame game” is taking place.

“There is an unfortunate tendency for school personnel to explain absences in terms of the parents’ attitudes or the home environment, while parents and students explain absences in terms of school factors.”

And there is clearly a disconnect between parents’ and schools’ expectations.

For example, Wadlow tells parents there’s “absolutely no way that mainstream provision can work” for a child with pathological demand avoidance, which potentially puts them on a collision course with schools cracking down on absenteeism.

A headteacher was criticised by Sunshine Support consultant Kelly Jarvis, a former special school head herself, for telling an anxious child that their parents would be fined if they didn’t attend school.

“Don’t feel you have to send your child in to tick a box. You’re OK not to send them in – just keep the paper trail,” Jarvis told parents. Sunshine Support said this advice was in relation to a specific case.

Ellie Costello, chief executive of parent support group Square Peg, said drivers of complaints include “toxic behaviour policies”, attendance policies that involve “coercively refusing to authorise absences” or “threatening fines and prosecutions”, and uniform policies involving “punishments for minor infractions”.

But in a recent podcast series for his pupils’ parents, Astrea Academy Woodfields principal David Scales said: “We are a public body that has a job to do of educating your children. So yes, we are going to tell you things you don’t like”.

He added: “What you shouldn’t be trying to do is escalate these issues, or expect that the school is going to change the way it operates … we are a very, very, very strict school, we will not change our approach because of what you’re telling us.”

Bennett says it is schools with high standards for behaviour that are hardest hit by worsening relationships, adding “some families don’t want to support their children to meet those standards”.

Woodfields was this week rated ‘good’ for the first time in its history.

Some parents also blame school communication apps, which send immediate notifications to parents when children win and lose behaviour points. They say this is micromanaging both kids and teachers.

Academies Enterprise Trust chief executive Becks Boomer-Clark adds that technology that provides parents with constant access to school staff means “we’ve reduced people’s ability then to build human relationships, to de-escalate situations”.

Becks Boomer Clark

Broken staff quit their jobs

Either way, the fallout on schools is driving staff to quit.

A poll by law firm Browne Jacobson of 1,800 school leaders in March found 90 per cent reported a “detrimental impact” of rising parental complaints on staff wellbeing. Almost half reported an impact on staff retention.

One acting head told a Facebook group that an influx of complaints made them “physically sick every morning going to work” and “wondering if I should drive straight into a tree so I don’t have to face the next day”.

Pete Jackson, head of history at Ryedale School in North Yorkshire, says part of why he quit a senior leadership role was “parents trying to conduct their own investigations, sending abusive emails at night or weekends, threatening you with Ofsted, demanding meetings” and “showing up in reception”.

Andy Byers, head of Framwellgate School in Durham, believes the change in parental behaviour over the last three years is “probably the biggest single factor driving leaders out of the profession”.

“Too many parents have lost the ability to just back a school and its decision making,” he says.

A Teacher Tapp survey of almost 10,000 teachers in May found almost 90 per cent felt parents had become “far too disrespectful of teachers”, compared to 80 per cent in 2022.

And Nicole McCartney, education director at Creative Education Trust, says the impact on school staff of the “rise of parent activists who are well organised and know what buttons to press can be absolutely brutal”.

She is protecting senior leaders by encouraging them to put notes on their office doors telling parents: “My director of education says if you threaten me, you have to leave”.

Meanwhile, Diocese of Lancaster Education Service commissioner Michael Merrick believes the rights of parents to pursue grievance “only really works when such escalation is rare”.

He adds: “When it becomes more widespread or persistent then it sucks up huge resource and capacity… this can be a huge emotional burden, often very personal, and utterly exhausting.”

Rachel Younger NAHT vice president

Playground bans for parents

Several trust leaders are banning parents from school premises for aggressive behaviour.

National Association of Headteachers vice-president Rachel Younger, who has dealt with such cases through the union, says it is a step “nobody wants” to take, “but sometimes it’s the right thing for everybody’s safety”.

Astrea Academy Woodfields introduced a parent code of conduct containing 30 guidelines in September. Parents are prohibited from “wearing clothing which may be viewed as offensive” on school premises, “destroying school property” and “sending abusive or threatening” messages, including “issues which consume an inordinate amount of staff time”.

Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust introduced a parent code of conduct across its 48 schools after social media backlash led to an Ofsted inspection and three SEND tribunal cases.

CEO Nick Hurn said the move had helped but staff were still battling a wider problem of an “increase in parents on social media who say the most outrageous things” about his team.

“Keyboard warrior groups can be quite aggressive and say things you’d never dream of saying to somebody’s face,” he says. “A lot more people are a lot angrier now, and a lot less happy to compromise.”

Hurn estimates around 15 to 20 per cent more of his senior leaders’ time is spent on dealing with complaints.

Some schools have introduced policies for dealing with “persistent or vexatious” complaints for when the standard complaints route has been exhausted.

The Kimichi independent secondary school in Birmingham’s policy states parents who “behave in an unreasonable manner” may face communication only by letters, or have a second staff member sit in on meetings.

Chris Passey, the school’s deputy headteacher, said it is “imperative to set clear expectations and boundaries. Parents need to be held accountable for their behaviour”.

He has taken calls ““demanding to know ‘why you put my child in a cage’”.

“The assumption that any child is automatically telling the truth is ridiculous.

“Parental complaints – especially ones that are unfounded, untrue or the result of groupthink from those blasted WhatsApp groups – take up a disproportionate amount of time … policies written to address this are the way forward.”

In Devon, the Ted Wragg Trust of 16 schools and the Blackdown Education Partnership of 10 schools both introduced ‘managing unreasonable behaviour’ policies. They include “temporary restrictions” for offending parents, and make clear any “libellous or defamatory comments” on social media will be reported.

Tamsin Frances, Ted Wragg’s executive director of people, says: “We begin from an assumption of goodwill, however strongly the feedback is vocalised”.

“It is a challenge. But we are committed to listening and responding to the ever-evolving landscape in this space.” 

Nicole McCartney Creative Education Trust

Working to win back goodwill

So what is the solution?

Liz Shapland, co-director of school improvement consultancy HFL Education, said  “the golden thread that runs through every solution – whether that’s tackling complaints or attendance – is parental support and engagement with the school”.

Maritime Academy, with 12 schools across the South East, has seen complaint volumes fall.

Chair of trustees Tiffany Beck attributes this to home visits. They take place before the new academic year and involve a class teacher and another staff member.

She says: “They aren’t a magical cure-all, but we’re finding they do help build meaningful, humanised relationships and trust.”

At Creative, McCartney is working on parent surveys to find out how much screen time children have, whether they eat family dinners together or eat breakfast before school – to improve the support they can offer families.

“It’s around gathering information to help, not just about parent satisfaction with schools,” she says.

Dr Nic Crossley, chief executive of the Liberty Academy Trust, a specialist trust supporting autistic children, says when issues are raised, meetings are arranged with families both “individually and in group forums”.

She adds the trust is “not afraid to make a change or acknowledge a mistake when warranted. This has resulted in better relationships and while we can never say we have no problems, we are working really hard to try to meet the needs of families.”

Jeremy Iver, headteacher at Stebon Primary School in East London, part of the LETTA Trust, made videos for parents to “share our expectations of attendance”.

The culture change was backed up with scripted morning calls to parents encouraging attendance, then at the end of the day to connect absence with missed learning. Its attendance now stands at 96.3 per cent.

“Ultimately, all these different measures helped to set up and maintain better partnerships with our parents,” Iver says.

At a system level, the Department for Education is working with Ofsted on data sharing around complaints to reduce duplication.

It is also trialling a gov.uk virtual assistant for parents and carers to help direct queries on issues including the school complaint process.

In its academies and commissioning review last year, DfE admitted there was “significant confusion and duplication” around the process for parental complaints which “creates burdens for schools”.

The Confederation of School Trusts also wants the Teaching Regulation Agency to only receive referrals from an employer or the police, not the public.

On her webinar, Wadlow urged schools to change with the times. She claimed that although institutions such as shops have “changed according to society’s needs … schools are identical now to what they were 20 years ago, and 20 years before that.”

She added “many of our children feel they are stepping back in time when they enter a school building. Teachers, parents and children are all affected by the rising challenge of getting children into the classroom; an overhaul of how education is delivered is needed. We need to move with the times.”

However, she ended the call on a more positive note. “We do speak to a lot of schools getting it right for children. They’ve been very, very gentle, and they’re achieving amazing things.”

Clarification: Schools Week has deleted the first names of parents who spoke on the webinar after a request from Sunshine Support

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8 Comments

  1. Laura Rhodes

    I think the relationship between schools, children and parents has broken down, with each group blaming each other.
    Our amazing little church school has addressed this and everyone works together – children, parents, teachers, leaders all work together and all love it. I feel like staff, parents and children are all so well understood.

  2. Rosie Cook

    This is happening all around the UK in Academy schools. Suddenly parents are finding the time in their busy lives to harangue schools and teachers? I don’t think so. There is really only one question WHY?
    You will find the answer in the many publications from revered academics, psychologists and psychiatrists. Children themselves are being harangued, harassed and bullied by these so called behaviour policies which regularly remove them to punishment rooms for minor infringements such as wearing the wrong shoes.
    Parents, don’t be intimidated. Your children are more important than their systems.

    • Emma Barter

      Ex teacher, current SEND parent here: this article is really poorly written, at no point do you address WHY parents are complaining or the SEND provision crisis. It is not a bad thing that parents now know their legal rights, their child’s rights, the laws, and are holding schools to account. You write this as if schools are paragons of virtue and all absolutely perfect, wonderful and innocent institutions devoid of any sort of blame or fault. This is just a parent and adcocate shaming article that does not address SEND at all. We recognise SEND much better these days and children who would have been shunted off to units and brushed under the carpet a generation ago are now more visible and better advocated for by their families. If this situation is THAT much of a struggle for the teachers in this article, tell me, are any of them being proactive and actually lobbying those higher up for more funding, better resources, improved SEND provision? Or are they all just moaning to each other about parents who are actually HUGELY struggling and their children, and giving quotes to Schools Week rather than doing something as a collective to enact change? This article actually just serves to further aggravate any vexation between educators and parents to be honest. Very sub standard journalism. Surprised it has not been deleted and apologies issued to those whose privacy you breached just to get some out of context quotes for this rag.

  3. I am probably considered ‘one of those parents’
    I submitted a complaint to the school regarding an incident where a child could remove another’s trousers and underwear and put his finger in the others anus. 1 metre from a TA.
    The school considered this normal and took no action but to have a chat to his mum at the end of the day. It was witnessed by the ta and other children so no child was lying here as you suggest must be the case. That is not normal and if professionals think it is they should not work with children.
    In response the victim was isolated alone in a small play area the DSL and feel objected to any safety planning and they didn’t follow what was put in place. The victim was then unlawfully excluded. I’m told because he missed 20 days of school. Although they knew why and knew exactly where he was so not even compliant with the education act.
    If that is how parents who are seriously concerned for their children’s welfare following sexual assault in the classroom are approached then complaints not upheld is not surprising parents don’t trust schools to fairly investigate complaints.
    I personally feel that education has become blinkered it is them that is failing and they have lost touch with parents and families they simply blame a rise of unreasonable vexatious parents but why would that be happening? Parents are increasingly unhappy and being ignored and bullied they and kids are voting with their feet they are not attending parents are trying to resolve issues and being barred from school grounds but when can schools evaluate why this is happening untill they can reflect and learn they will continue to see rising complaints absence rates and poor behaviour. It’s not us it really is you that’s the problem

  4. This article is unfair. Parents are complaining because their children are suffering, either mental harms, or from policies that remove them from education. Parents in the UK didn’t suddenly decide, hey, Covid is over, let’s pick on teachers. When the behaviour policy was imposed on our children and we got no say in it – we got upset. We are still upset.

    And so instead of moaning about vexatious complaints, why don’t you fix what we are complaining about? Your contributor said it: “we are a very, very, very strict school, we will not change our approach because of what you’re telling us.”

    Parents did NOT sign up to ‘very, very, very, strict schools, and this is what we are fighting, day in day out. In many areas there are no alternatives, which means the only recourse for change is to complain.

    I am and will continue to be a vexatious parent. Only by repeatedly complaining did I obtain any concession to these ‘very very strict’ behaviour policies that harm my child and (most of the time) remove him from education completely.

    Please do read our website, where 1,000 other upset and unhappy parents share their stories.

    And when these vexatious Academies start treating our children better, who knows, maybe we might stop complaining.

  5. I think schools have a tricky job – persuade a bunch of little children who want to run to sit.. and persuade a bunch of older children/teens who want to socialize to be quiet. That basic problem makes confrontation inevitable. But I don’t think it can ever be solved by trying to force children to be something that they aren’t – that just leads to shame and frustration for all involved. Instead education that allows autonomy, kindness, flexibility and considers from the children’s perspective is what we need.

  6. I’m Kelly Jarvis, quoted in this article. I’ve been a teacher since 2005, and before joining Sunshine Support, was Head of School in a specialist school. I absolutely stand by my view that no parent should send their child to school to tick a box – but the rest of what I said was omitted. I was responding to a parent who was incredibly fearful of prosecution as her child was in autistic burnout and unable to attend. No parent would send their child in if very unwell, or had a broken leg; why is mental burnout any different? The ‘paper trail’ was in reference to the fact fines and prosecution should be reserved for those who do not engage at all with schools, something I would never advise. I tell all our parents needing help to be as open, honest and cooperative as possible with school to get the support they need, and yes to keep a paper trail to show this. I also make sure parents know schools’ statutory obligations, such as welfare checks, and we work collaboratively to determine how best to do these in a way that meets the child where they are.

    I would encourage anybody to watch the full webinar, which you can access on the Sunshine Support website.

    Whenever I work with schools, which is often, one of the first things I make clear is that I’m not there to tell schools how to do their job. I’m there to be an extra brain, extra resource, to hopefully bring some bonus CPD or to support a likely overworked SENDCO in any way I can. I’m there to facilitate empathetic, collaborative relationships between schools and parents, in a way that will hopefully allow parents to be heard and solutions to be formed as a team, but that doesn’t set out to fight with schools. This is how Sunshine Support works, and nothing meaningful or lasting is achieved being anything other than that.

  7. l carrington

    As education is the right of children, surely having parents engaged about the system that delivers it is a good thing. Engaged, however, does not mean accepting that system in its current form, or blindly backing backing the impact of that system design at the sharp end. Parents advocating for both their own individual children and a system that delivers, and sticks to the law, for all children, with the diverse range of strengths, challenges, and circumstances they actually have are both necessary to improve the experiences and outcomes of children, who themselves have little voice and no power. I don’t under-estimate the challenges of running a school or being a teacher, and those challenges must surely be exponentially worse during a cost of living crisis and cuts to public funding, which impacts not only school funding, but also the support services of social care, camhs, nhs, housing, employment, and the finances and stresses on individual famillies. The impact of those stresses on individual staff will vary, but can lead to a defensive standpoint that approaches any engagement by parents that isn’t complete backing of all school decisions as a problem. School staff are human, with the full range of human views and behaviours: they make mistakes, some staff (a few) will be dismissive, or actively malicious towards some children, some staff, (a very very few) will be criminally harmful. Some schools skirt or flout the law on e.g. exclusions. Parents engaging and bringing problems to light, individually or in groups, is a gift – it allows systems to understand what is happening on the ground and the impact of that. Just as in the NHS where I work, complaints, and engaging with individuals and activist groups are part of how we improve systems so that they work for all the people they’re supposed to serve. Without activism groups parents have no voice to influence system change, apart from the ballot box, which doesn’t come in a timeframe that is useful for their own children, school governors can be hard to reach. For pressing individual issues groups provide peer support, parents are often isolated, worried, frustrated and unsupported in navigating an unfamiliar opaque system unless they can afford legal representation (and would schools find lawyered up parents preferable?). Mental health issues in children are rising, which isn’t the fault of schools, but schools have to respond to the needs of the children they have coming through the door, who live in the world as it is now, rather than those that came 30 or 50 years ago. Instead of pitting parents and schools against each other, schools could work with these groups, which have 10s of thousands of members and can help that evolution, to change a system that doesn’t work for many of those it is meant to serve (children) and probably never did, and makes the life of those who work in it very difficult. Together that would be a powerful force to transform the opportunities of all children, not just those who are able through luck to navigate and survive the system we currently have. (parent, member of online support groups for children who struggle with mental health issues and school attendance).