School car parks were always a convenient place for parents to congregate and ‘chat’ either before school or, more often than not, at the end of the school day, whilst they waited to collect their children. They still are. Principals and school staff used to be concerned about the ‘car park gossip’ that took place when a disgruntled parent chose to voice concerns regarding the school or even about an out of school matter. They still are.
However, anecdotal evidence points out that the level of car park gossip was usually directly proportional to the level of access to the principal of the school. Basically, if the school did not encourage parents to raise concerns or complaints with the principal or other relevant staff, the problems used to be aired and shared with other parents in the car park. Then came social media. Ouch.
My goodness, this was a new phenomenon that was embraced by people worldwide, many who wanted to share the minutiae of their daily lives and others who wrote meaningful blogs. Then it was discovered that it was a great way to air a complaint in a very public forum - far greater than any oratory that could take place in a car park at the end of the school day.
Schools ran for assistance, sometimes seeking legal advice to have pages closed down or to have people censored and to ensure that their reputation was not sullied in a public domain. Even government departments waded into this arena to ensure that people who lodged complaints about schools on social media were made aware of more appropriate avenues. This was not just an Australian phenomenon. Documents such as this one from the UK, have been written to assist schools in dealing with complaints lodged on social media by parents. However, what many schools did not realise was that a structured complaints policy and a more transparent complaints process and having parents trust that their complaints would not only be heard, but would be suitably and expeditiously acted upon, would have probably reduced the propensity for people to use social media as a vehicle to vent their frustrations.
In a School Governance article, it was noted that some parents had problems with their child’s school, a teacher of the school or procedures that operated within the school. In many of these cases, the parents did not deal with their problems through the school’s complaints processes. Sometimes this was because the complaints processes were not well known, not easily accessible, considered to be too difficult, or the parents believed that they would not be given a fair hearing.
The importance of capturing feedback - good and bad
In his recent paper, 'Complaints Handling in Australian Schools – Walking the tightrope between ignorance and knowledge’, James Field, Managing Director of CompliSpace, argues that despite the history of this phenomena and schools’ extensive legal obligations to effectively manage complaints, many schools in Australia still only pay lip-service to the practice. That paper examines the legal framework within which Australian schools are required to implement complaints handling processes and examines how these legal obligations compare to best practice, as bench marked by the International and Australian Complaints Handling Standard AS-ISO 10002-2014 Customer satisfaction – Guidelines for complaints handling in organisations (Australian Standard).
Mr Field’s paper highlights the benefits of effective complaints management within schools and the dangers that schools face in the event that they fail to capture and control negative feedback, particularly on social media. Finally, the paper makes recommendations for moving forward and embracing best practice corporate governance and complaints handling processes within schools.
School Governance has also published numerous articles regarding schools and complaints over the years, including a series of four articles that commence with ‘Why you should be encouraging complaints’, based on ‘Managing Complaints - Walking the Tightrope Between Ignorance and Knowledge’ presented by Mr Field at the Australia and New Zealand Education Law Association (ANZELA) Conference in Adelaide on 2 October 2014. The paper is available here.
A School Governance survey of non-government schools found that whilst 76 per cent of the respondents had a documented complaints handling program, only 27 per cent had a policy that followed the guidelines set out in the Australian Standard. Critically, 59 per cent of respondents indicated that they did not maintain a complaints register and 67 per cent indicated that neither their board of governors or executive teams received regular reports detailing the number and nature of complaints received.
Another School Governance survey conducted in June 2017, indicates that these figures may have improved slightly, but the readers still indicated that 58 per cent of schools are still not handling complaints effectively. This indicates that many schools are still not taking their complaints handling role seriously.
Legal reasons to manage complaints effectively
There are very real and very legal requirements for schools to have formal and documented complaints processes. For example, in Western Australia:
- Section 159 of the School Education Act 1999 (WA) specifies that the Minister may determine standards for non-government schools about any of the following matters — “the response to, and recording of, complaints and disputes at schools”. This is a criterion for re-registration.
- The Registration Standards for WA Non-Government Schools, Standard 11 – Complaints Management, provides specific detail of what schools are expected to do to comply with this obligation. The Director Generals comments include: “The school’s complaints management system, which includes its policy and procedures as well as complaints records, will be evaluated by reference to the current Australian Standard for Complaint Management in Organizations [AS/NZS 10002:2014] and specifically against Appendix A of that Standard which provides guidance for small organisations.”
- For those schools with Early Learning facilities, the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care, National Quality Standard Element 7.3.4 requires providers to ensure that “Processes are in place to ensure that all grievances and complaints are addressed, investigated fairly and documented in a timely manner.”
- The Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), which applies to most non-government schools, requires schools to develop a well-articulated complaints handling process to comply with the APPs.
- For those with Full Fee Paying Overseas Students (FFPOS), The National Code 2017 – Standard 8 provides detailed requirements relating to the implementation of complaints and appeals processes.
- Last, but not least, schools offering VET courses directly, must register to become a registered training organisation (RTO), which in WA means complying with the Australian Quality Training Framework 2010 – Standard 2 – Element 2.7 which also provides detailed requirements relating to complaints and appeals.
The latter three points directly affect many schools across the country. Faced with multiple sources of obligation to manage complaints handling effectively, schools should understand which laws apply to them in their jurisdiction (state/territory and federal) and ensure that they have a complaints handling process in place which meets those obligations.
Understanding the benefits of encouraging complaints
In his paper, ’Complaints Handling in Australian Schools – Walking the tightrope between ignorance and knowledge’, Mr Field also suggests that the real reason why many schools don’t manage complaints effectively is that they don’t understand the benefits that they would gain from effective complaints management and they don’t understand how to implement an effective complaints handling process.
So, what should schools do in order to not only be compliant, but to be effective in dealing with complaints? Mr Field suggests that all schools should have:
- a documented complaints handling program (policies and procedures)
- video training for staff (to ensure commonality of training)
- summary complaints handling guidelines
- 'complaints officers' to ensure consistent delivery of key educational outcomes
- a software system designed to capture complaints and track actions and outcomes. Properly designed such a system would not only facilitate the proper management of complaints at a local school level but also it would allow regulators to benchmark performance between schools and identify key risks before they become substantial issues.
In an article from the UK, published by the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning, the authors take the whole issue of parent complaints back to the most important reason for dealing with them quickly and effectively - the child’s ongoing learning. “Whenever there is a dispute between a parent and a school, it is important that the complaints procedure is followed so that grievances are taken seriously and solutions can be quickly found to ensure that the child or young person’s education is not disrupted.”