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What not to do when you get a complaint
6 common mistakes that governors make when dealing with complaints – and how to avoid them.
The advice in this article came from our governance expert, Harry James and Forbes Solicitors.
Don't discuss complaints with complainants yourself
If someone complains to you about your school, don't try and address it there and then. Direct them to your school's complaints policy. As a governor, you need to avoid discussions with individuals about school management issues.
For example, if a parent approaches you with an issue:
- Explain that hearing individual concerns is not a part of governor's strategic remit
- Tell them to follow the school's complaints procedure to make sure their issue is handled properly
- If you know who they should contact as the first stage of the process, direct them to this person (likely to be their child's class teacher or the headteacher)
Don't post anything on social media
You might see the complaint being discussed on social media – especially if you're a parent governor and are in Facebook or WhatsApp groups with other parents.
Whatever you do, don't wade in. This could make things worse, and is likely to go against your school's complaints policy. As above, it's not your job to talk to individuals about school issues, especially when your comments will be out in public.
As a preventative measure, make sure your school has a social media policy or set of guidelines in place that cover how you'll respond to a situation like this. Agree this as a governing board and make sure everyone is on the same page.
For more guidance on using social media as a school governor, read our Facebook 'cheat sheet'.
Don't talk to the press
Similarly, don't comment to the press unless it's been approved by your school.
Don't deviate from your policies
Always check your own policies before taking any action to respond to a complaint, and follow them to the letter.
Make sure you're following the most appropriate policy with our decision-helper and summary article 'Which policy do I turn to when there's a problem?'. Sometimes what looks like a complaint can actually be a grievance, or an instance of whistle-blowing, for example.
...unless your policy doesn't comply with the law
If your policy doesn't cover everything it should, or isn't compliant, seek HR or legal advice. Pausing and checking your course of action is better than taking steps you're not sure are correct.
Follow the law over your policy if your policy doesn't include a legal requirement or contradicts the law. For example:
- Under equality law, you must make 'reasonable adjustments' so that someone with a disability can access your complaints process properly – but you may not explicitly say this in your policy
- Academies must facilitate the right for parents to be accompanied to a complaints hearing, even if this hasn't made it into your policy
Don't let your headteacher get involved if they're not meant to
It's understandable for headteachers to want to keep an eye on what's going on with a complaint. It's also understandable for governors to turn to the headteacher for reassurance.
However, you need to make sure your headteacher doesn't overstep their boundaries, as this might leave you open to challenge later for not following the right procedure. For example, the headteacher shouldn't:
- Take initial steps to investigate the complaint and 'get the ball rolling' before an investigator has been appointed, if this isn't set out in your policy
- Get involved in the investigation once an investigator has been appointed
- Sit on the panel if there might be a conflict of interests
Don't share information freely
If you're not sure someone needs information about the complaint, don't share it. You don't want data protection worries on top of dealing with the initial complaint.
Sometimes the information is sensitive, and it will usually involve someone's personal data. Some practical ways to make sure you're sharing information sensibly are:
- Only use approved communication channels. For example, if your board uses an online governor document storage system for documents relating to the complaint, always use this and don't attach information to emails or send text messages about the matter
- Turn off the 'autofill' function on your emails so you don't accidentally send something to the wrong person
- Check with the clerk, or whoever's coordinating the complaint, if you're not sure whether to share information
- Read your data protection policy to make sure that you're doing it right
- If it's too late and you've shared someone's personal data by accident, follow your school's personal data breach procedure
Don't leave it too late to seek legal advice
Prevention is better than cure when it comes to legal advice. It can be hard to spot the right time to call a lawyer for help, especially if you don't already have a provider in place and your budget is tight.
However, it's nearly always more cost-effective to get a lawyer involved when you see an issue on the horizon, rather than waiting until you've got a large problem to fix.
As a general rule, think about appointing a lawyer if the complaint involves:
- A safeguarding element
- Any mention of court proceedings
- The potential for an employment tribunal
Read our guide to seeking high-quality legal advice for more advice on finding a good law firm.
Harry James is a national leader of governance. He is currently chair of governors of a primary school in London, and is part of the steering group for an academic research project looking at school accountability and stakeholder education.
Forbes Solicitors also helped with this article.
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