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Why you should be encouraging complaints

25/11/14
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This is the first part in a series of articles on complaints handling, what it involves and why schools need to implement effective complaints handling processes. The articles are based on a paper entitled ‘Managing Complaints - Walking the Tightrope Between Ignorance and Knowledge’ presented by CompliSpace Managing Director James Field at the Australia and New Zealand Education Law Association (ANZELA) Conference in Adelaide on 2 October 2014. The paper is available in full here.

What is the issue?

Despite extensive legal obligations to effectively manage complaints, many schools in Australia only pay lip-service to the practice.

Take a selection of schools in your local area, go to their public website, and type into ‘search’ (if there is one) the word ‘complaints’ or ‘grievances’ or even ‘feedback’. Whilst the results will differ greatly depending on the State and Territory that you live in, the chances are that if it is a government school it will push you back to a Department of Education template policy that suggests that you talk to the teacher, then the principal, then lodge a formal complaint in writing with the Department. If it is a non-government school, the chances are that you may come up with a complete blank.

A recent School Governance survey of 63 non-government schools, conducted through this site found that whilst 76% of schools had a documented complaints handling program, only 27% had a policy that followed the guidelines set out in the Australian Standard. Critically, 59% of respondents indicated that they did not maintain a complaints register and 67% indicated that neither their board of governors or executive teams received regular reports detailing the number and nature of complaints received.

Conduct a Google search for ‘statistics’ or ‘reports’ with respect to complaints handling in schools and whilst you are likely to hit upon some interesting data for critical incidents in government schools, in all likelihood you will not be able to find any information with respect to ‘complaints’ in general. Repeat that search for independent schools and Catholic schools and you are likely to come up with a blank. The reason for this is that information with respect to complaints is either not being captured or recorded at a local school level, or data with respect to complaints received is not being analysed effectively.

Put yourself in the position of a parent, or a member of a local community, and from a standing start try and work out the complaints handling process of your local school. For some of you, this will be very easy (especially if you come from Western Australia). For others, your experience will vary greatly depending on your jurisdiction and whether you are reviewing a government school, or a non-government school.

Anecdotally, it is not uncommon to discuss the issue of complaints management with a school principal and get responses such as ‘we really don’t get any’ or ‘we try to avoid them’ or ‘we resolve everything informally, no need to record these things’.

Why encourage complaints?

It may seem counter-intuitive that any school would want to encourage parents, students or general members of the public to lodge a complaint. For one, schools have enough on their plate. So the idea of actively encouraging complaints, and then going through the process of responding to them, would surely just increase already excessive work loads and cause unnecessary headaches.

There are, however, at least two compelling reasons why schools across Australia should review their current complaints handling policies and procedures.

First of all, the vast majority of schools (both government and non-government) have clearly defined legal obligations to have complaints handling policies and procedures in place. These obligations typically, but do not always, arise from the education regulatory frameworks of state and territory governments. They also arise from a myriad of ancillary legislation such as that regulating privacy, international students, early childhood education and after-school care, as well as vocational education training services and even human rights legislation. Larger, more complex, schools could in fact find that the requirement for them to document and effectively implement complaints handling policies and procedures arises from five or six different pieces of regulation.

Second, in the age of social media where bad news can travel at great speed, effectively implementing complaints handling policies and procedures is critical for any school that is serious about protecting its reputation and providing high quality education outcomes.

What benefits will your school gain by handling complaints properly?

The establishment and implementation of an effective complaints handling program is all about taking control. Taking control of information and misinformation before it is disseminated. Taking control of complainants and resolving complaints at the earliest possible stage of the process. Taking control of potential risk events by recognising complaints as key risk indicators. Ultimately effective complaints handling is all about taking control of the management of a school’s reputation.

The benefits of establishing and effectively implementing a complaints handling program within a school are many:

  • it ensures that a school complies with its legal obligations;
  • it encourages constructive feedback from key stakeholders;
  • it allows a school to identify real problems that must be resolved;
  • it discourages vexatious or frivolous complaints;
  • it allows a school to take control of vexatious or frivolous complainants if received;
  • it provides information with respect to potential risks a school faces;
  • it enhances a school’s ability to identify systematic and recurring problems;
  • it assists a school to continually improve its internal systems and controls;
  • it empowers staff by giving them a clear path to resolve issues in a consistent, systematic and responsive way;
  • it enhances staff relationships with parents, students and other key stakeholders;
  • it provides a school’s managers and governing body with critical knowledge that enhances their decision making ability;
  • it sets a positive role model for members of a school community; and
  • it protects and often enhances a school’s reputation.

The introduction of the new Privacy Laws in Australia on 12 March 2014 (Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)) requiring schools to have a well-articulated complaints handling process in relation to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information, furthers the case for schools to start to take their complaints handling processes seriously and for school governing bodies to start demanding transparency as to the numbers and types of complaints that are being received by their school.

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