The Guardian published one of my pieces here. It was intended as light entertainment, and hopefully will be taken as such. When originally asked to do it, I was worried that if I did it seriously, it would come across like a tedious leaflet stuck to the community noticeboard in the local library, whereas if I went for laughs, I’d either hugely offend teachers, or hugely offend parents. Given that I’m both a teacher and a parent, this felt like a no-win situation. Anyway, the Guardian clearly thought it wasn’t too offensive, although a few bits were lost in the sub-editing. One of those bits was my traditional insult to Gove. As a Disappointed Idealist piece without a Gove insult is like mash without sausage, or rugby league without a fight, I felt I’d better reproduce the original unedited version here for those people who want a Gove-bashing fix.
One of the more useful pieces of advice I was ever given was from a friend who worked in the restaurant business. He told me that, if I were planning to complain about any part of my meal or service, I should wait until I had eaten all I was going to eat that night. He illustrated this sage warning with examples of exactly what can happen to food prepared by disgruntled chefs for awkward customers, and so I’ve followed this advice ever since. It’s a generally good principle of protest : don’t complain to people upon whom you’re relying unless there’s no way they can wipe your steak on their backside or drop a bogey in your soup. Or words to that effect.
As with restaurants, so with schools. The difference with schools, of course, is that unless you’re planning to move house, you’re likely to be stuck with them for a lot longer than one meal. If your child is in primary school, they’re likely to have the same teacher for a whole year of their young, vulnerable and impressionable lives. So think carefully before putting on your Mr Angry face, and marching down to the school reception for a spot of cathartic-but-ultimately-harmful ranting.
However, like all institutions, schools will occasionally make mistakes, allow oversights, or just generally cock-up, and the fact that it’s your precious child who may be on the receiving end can have any parent becoming rather hotter under the collar than they would if they just thought the chicken was a bit overdone. So how best to go about complaining to a school ?
Gain, not pain
Well, first of all, don’t complain. Yes, that’s right, don’t complain. Complaints are negative, destructive things. They’re the sign of minds missing their meeting, and they’ll do nothing for your future relationship with your child’s teacher.
Don’t lose sight of your objective. You’re not complaining solely to get someone into grief, satisfying though that may seem at times. You’re trying to get something to change. That requires a little more reasonable persuasion and a little less angry shouting. After all, how would you want a teacher to approach one of your child’s mistakes : “Try doing it this way next time” or “You got it wrong, you incompetent git” ?
If you don’t want a positive relationship with your child’s school, then feel free to go and tell the headteacher exactly what you think of his new hairpiece, the colour of his new academy chain-sponsored Ferrari, and the fact that he only seems to be employing sixth-formers as teachers. But don’t expect little Johnny will win any more “Star of the Week” certificates in the next five years. You have to be more subtle.
“Gove was an ideological idiot who enabled crooks to fill their pockets with school budgets, and loonies to brainwash our kids with nonsense“. That’s a complaint. It’s true, of course, but ultimately unhelpful, as it will merely make Conservatives defensive.
“We can all agree, I’m sure, that Gove was an ideological idiot, and all his reforms should be reversed before any more crooks or loonies fill their pockets with school budgets or brainwash our kids with nonsense“. Now we’re talking. The point is made, and a useful course of action is proposed which will make matters better. I can imagine Nicky Morgan is preparing the reversing legislation this very day. No ?
So having established the format, let’s look at some ways and means of making your point effectively to a school.
Some things are not actually legitimate complaints
Try to remember that your child is not the only student in the school. Complaining that she didn’t get the lead role in the nativity play, or that he’s not captain of the football team, is thus pointless because you don’t know how the other children are doing. The school has to manage all the children, including the ones who aren’t yours. I know – shocking, but what can you do ? It’s just possible that your athletically gifted genius offspring might not be the very best sportsman or scholar in every instance.
The most common form of this kind of complaint tends to arrive when ‘setting’ takes place. There can’t be many teachers who haven’t at one time or another had to point out that, yes, Tom is a bright boy, and yes, he’s been making good progress, but no, he can’t go in the top set just because you want him to because there are two hundred students in his year, thirty chairs in a classroom and a hundred of those kids are performing better than him. As an aside, it always seems to be the parents who are most committed to competition, setting, ranking and all the rest of the dog-eat-dog stuff who get most upset when the dog bites their own puppy. Anyway, if you complain about this, you’ll rapidly become the sort of parent who, when your name is mentioned in the staffroom, causes teachers to raise their eyebrows and mutter “Oh, THAT Mrs Smith”.
Let’s say a harassed teacher gives your child a sanction for missing homework. Your child is adamant that no instruction was received. If you think a raw deal has been had, then speak to the teacher, politely, about your concerns. You may get a slightly different version of events than that which emerged from your child’s unmelted-butter-filled mouth, or you may get a teacher who apologises for a case of confused record-keeping. Either way, you’ll have created a positive relationship for the future. Do not write a steaming novella to the Chair of Governors complaining of the teacher’s denial of your son’s civil rights. In sensible schools, this will be laughed at, and then ignored after a polite acknowledgement. In less sensible schools, many man-hours will be wasted in justification, explanation and recrimination as everyone scrambles to cover their arses. When the dust settles, your child will still be in that teacher’s class, only now he’s going to be getting a lot of special individualized PhD-standard homework which you’ll have to help him with every night until your eyeballs bleed. This is not a positive relationship for the future.
Early on in my teaching career, I suffered this fate. I was introducing A-level coursework, and told my class of Year 13s that they had to choose a question that had an element of historical doubt, so there was no point setting a question like “Is Blair a bit dishonest?” or “Was Thatcher evil?”. It was a joke. Not my best, but the sort of thing which raises a loyal chuckle on a boring Thursday afternoon. The next day I was hauled into the Head’s office to be read a four-page, spittle-flecked diatribe (yes, written in green pen) about how that particular parent felt Thatcher “saved this country from the Argentinians”, and they did not send their child to my school to be “indoctrinated by trendy lefty teachers”. It went on. And on. And on. Anonymously. The very disproportionality of it eliminated any real point. The head and I had a chuckle, and I went back to my classroom secretly pleased to have been called “trendy” for the first time in my life. This was not an effective complaint.
Ask first, shout later
Schools can be odd institutions, with odd ways of operating, and often employing odd people. The students themselves, being children, are by definition also odd. So odd things might happen. If something happens which seems, well, odd, then try to approach it first by asking someone at the school why something is happening in that way. That completely unmarked book might be a sign of a teacher who has lost his Pen-Of-Officially-Approved-Colour since the start of the year. Or it might be a sign that all the assessments are done online, and the same teacher’s electronic markbook groans with levels and grades. When your daughter comes home without four of the five pairs of earrings she was wearing on the way in to school, it may not be an arbitrary dislike of jewellery on the part of a cruel and arbitrary teacher, but might rather be a school uniform policy in place since the start of term, about which your daughter, ahem, forgot to bring home the informative letter. If you’re dissatisfied with the answer, then by all means then seek to make your views known, but don’t assume the worst.
Children are not always the most reliable witnesses to their own crimes
Look, I’m a parent, and I love my children dearly, but I have to admit that when it comes to the “it wasn’t my fault” championships, they’re gold medallists. Every parent has watched with their own eyes, one of their children punch a sibling, rip the head off a doll, or write “mum is fat and horrible” in permanent marker on the kitchen table, then turn around with a face of angelic innocence and proclaim sincerely “But I didn’t DO anything!” before weeping the hot tears of victimized injustice when in receipt of your punishment (No ? Just me, then…). It’s great that parents want to stick up for their children, but if your child comes home from school with a detention, then one of two possibilities is open to you :
1) Your child, being thirteen years old, decided to chat to his tablemate about Arsenal while the teacher was talking; got caught, and was handed a detention.
2) Your child was sitting there paying full attention to every single word, ignoring the temptations of less well-behaved children, when the only adult in the room, a trained professional, decided that she would randomly sanction him for her own sadistic pleasure.
It’s a good idea to apply Occam’s Razor before hitting the complaint button.
Curriculum and Exams
Complain to the Government. They did it. Not us.
Complain to God. He’s in charge of the weather.
Schools and teachers do mess up
Having accepted all the above, there will be occasions when the school, or a teacher, do get things wrong. So if you’ve contacted the person in question and ascertained the reality, and are convinced that something unsatisfactory is taking place, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Complain to the Head. She/he will pass that on to the relevant manager to investigate and report back before responding to you. This might take a couple of days while the situation is looked into, but it will happen. Note that if you write every week with a complaint, she/he will pass that on to the waste-paper basket file, and you probably won’t get a response. You nutter.
Leaving a answerphone message is utterly pointless. Your perfectly crafted ten-minute vent at the injustices of school life will never reach its target. Only messages from teachers pretending to have flu in order to stay at home and avoid bottom set Y9 are ever picked up by the office staff. All the recorded complaints get turned into a mix tape with a death metal backing track, and played at the end of year sixth form disco.
Use the language of Ofsted. Don’t say “What extra are you doing for my child?”. Instead, say “Can you tell me exactly how you’re spending my child’s pupil premium money?”. Trust me, the last one works much better – I’ve used it.
No ad hominem attacks please (oh, the irony in a Guardian article). I’ve heard parents describing their child’s twelve-year-old adversary as a cross between Genghis Khan and Damien the Omen. Clue: a teacher is never going to nod and say “Yes, Michael IS, in fact, a little turd, and we’re going to expel him soon”. Stick to the issues, like whether a class move might be possible, or more teacher supervision at potential breaktime flashpoints – we might be able to do something about those.
Get elected as a governor. If you’re lucky, your school hasn’t yet been swallowed up by a private academy chain, in which case its governing body still has ultimate power, and the headteacher is accountable to it. If you think the school is getting something consistently wrong, then join up. Not many schools are oversubscribed for parent governors, and these positions do have genuine influence. If, on the other hand, your child’s school already has a corporate chain logo on the front, or the personal coat-of-arms of a carpet magnate flying proudly from fifteen newly-installed masts, then you’re stuffed. Sorry.
Other people’s parents
Every year, my school asks parents in a survey whether they think there’s too much homework, or not enough. Every year, the proportion answering each option is roughly similar. Such is life. For every parent who thinks that their seventeen year-old should be allowed to wear Julia Roberts’ “Pretty Woman” costume to sixth form, there’s another who thinks that all the children should be made to dress like a member of Harold Macmillan’s cabinet in 1959. State schools are, by nature, inclusive institutions, and encompass all the wonderful diversity of opinions and tastes which make up our society. That’s (a) lovely and fluffy and Guardiany; and (b) thus impossible to please everyone.
Let me give you an example of how other people’s parents get in the way : parents evenings. Many schools have taken to handing parents little five-minute time-slots with their various teachers. Theoretically, each parent/child combo turns up at the right time, gets a detailed and carefully prepared talk from the teacher for those five minutes, and then departs in an orderly fashion to their next appointment, to be replaced by the next combo. This continues for three hours, then everyone goes home. Except the orderly timetable usually lasts approximately fifteen minutes. Why ? Other people’s parents.
Parents arrive late, they get lost on the school site when trying to find a toilet, their child loses her appointment sheet. All these things happen. But they also want to talk about their child. It’s so unreasonable! Some of them carry on talking even after the five minutes is up. I have got much better at this over my ten years, to be fair. At the beginning I used to sit helplessly as a lovely and highly-engaged parent spoke at length on about their darling, while watching a pile-up of increasingly agitated parents of other children piling up behind. Now I employ a variety of tactics which can seem a little brutal, ranging from closing my markbook with the Thump Of Finality, through to sticking my hand out and saying “thanks for coming in” at the first millisecond-long break in their monologue. As a result, I usually manage to fit most people in at roughly the time they think they’ve booked.
But I’ve also heard of parents complaining bitterly about how they were kept waiting for ten minutes by a teacher who has spent three non-stop hours with parents who’ve been hugely late, or overly loquacious, or have had lengthy arguments with their child in front of us (always a good one), or have even broken down in tears (the parent, not the child). Here’s a tip for parents’ evening : if you see any of your child’s teachers with an empty seat in front of them, and no parent waiting, just get in there. The teacher will be grateful to chalk off another, you’ll be dealt with, and the whole thing works more smoothly. Just don’t tell my school I told you so.
Nearly all the issues which you might feel are worthy of complaint stem from this inescapable fact; there are a lot more children in that school, and the school has to try and do something for all of them. Life would be great if the entire institution could be tailored just to your child, with 100% of the teachers’ attention, a carefully personalized curriculum, and school dinners which only provide your child’s favourite pizza toppings. Such institutions exist: they’re called “home-schools”, and you’re the headteacher. Best of luck.