Dealing with complaints

Types of complaints

No matter how experienced you are, all school leaders receive complaints from time to time. These can range from informal, verbal comments up to formal, written complaints; from minor to major concerns.

They may come from students, staff, parents, or even members of the public. They could be about students, teaching or non-teaching staff, you, the board, your school policies, or school events. Some you might be ready for, others will come out of the blue and surprise you.

Complaints may escalate rapidly unless they are well managed. It is better to have processes in place and rarely need them than to have nothing in place and end up with an issue that has the potential to flare up.

One principal suggests you "deal with the complaint at the lowest level possible. An escalated complaint is like a hurricane; the more emotional the heat, the more ferocious it becomes."

Is it a complaint?

It is not always obvious when someone is making a complaint, so be alert to the possibility. Ask, “Are you making a complaint?”  Find out whether they have seen your school's complaints policy. Make a note of the response you receive.

Complaints can be made in the form of softly presented expressions of concern about something or someone. These can often be missed by busy principals and grow in seriousness. If this happens, a complainant could justifiably say, “I asked you to do something about this 6 months ago!” However, you don’t want to be over-reactive, so seeking clarification at an early stage is important.

If it seems tricky, don’t hope it will just go away. It won’t.

Involving the board

If the complaint is made to you, use your judgment. Try to achieve resolution at the lowest level possible. Don’t involve the board unless you feel you are going to need help. 

If you think things might escalate, advise the board chair of the measures you’re taking so that he/she will not suddenly be surprised by what has become a major concern. You may also need to alert the school’s insurer if the complaint is "high level" - for example, if it could become a personal grievance case.

If a complaint is addressed to the board, it must go to the board. When a complaint is made to the board, it’s not your decision. You will play whatever role the board requires of you. For example, you might be asked to gather and pass on the evidence. If you collect and present the evidence, natural justice says you should not be involved in any judgment – let the board make the decision.

If the complaint is about you, the board must handle it without your involvement, but with your knowledge.

Being prepared

Check your school policy

You need a process ready to follow that follows the principles of natural justice and is respectful.

If you're new to the school, check whether there's a policy for dealing with complaints and when it was last reviewed – every three years is an ideal goal. If there is no policy, develop one with your board of trustees.

When checking your policy, ask:

  • Does it conform to best practice and is it open to legal scrutiny?
  • Has the board of trustees ratified the policy?
  • Does it include a flowchart of the process which is easy to follow?
  • Is it inclusive? Does it reflect our community?
  • Is it available in the languages used in our community?
  • Have we given copies to parents or whānau?
  • Is it easy to find on our school website?

Check employment agreements and rules

Be familiar with the requirements and processes set out in the employment agreements of teachers and other staff members. Know what you must report to the Education Council and how to do that.

Collective agreements - Ministry of Education

Making a mandatory report – Education Council

Seek advice

If in doubt always seek advice. Contact the NZSTA advisory service or your sector representative group. They are always there to provide advice and guidance and it's better to talk with them than to try and handle things on your own, especially if you are inexperienced or unsure in the particular situation.

Advisory services – NZSTA

Sector support for schools and kura – Ministry of Education

The points below can be incorporated into a complaints' policy. They come from an online discussion involving a group of secondary school principals.

When you receive a complaint

Listen

  • Let the complainant have their say. Make it clear that you have heard the complaint. Say something like, “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll follow this up and get back to you by …” Name a time that is easy to achieve and contact the complainant with your progress report towards resolution of the issue.
  • Make the complainant feel that you value their coming to you. Do this even if they are angry. Remain calm even if what is being said seems unfair. You are the one in control of the situation.
  • Write down the specifics of the complaint. You might need to get the complainant to pause while you gather things to write with.
  • Check back that you have the details right. If it seems appropriate, ask them to write down the complaint as well, so that you can compare what you have written with what they said. Keep this written documentation safe, as you may need it later.

Investigate

  • Depending on the nature of the complaint, you will probably not need to respond straight away, other than to thank the complainant for letting you know. However, if you deem the complaint to be serious, for example if it involves the safety of a child or staff member, you may need to take immediate action before you can begin an investigation. This may involve the removal of a person, or contacting external support. Do not assume blame on anyone’s part until you have gathered all the facts.
  • Make a judgment call about the time you need to deal with this complaint. Is it something that you can leave for a little while, or something that requires nipping in the bud now? Ask yourself what the consequences of not dealing with the complaint immediately are likely to be.
  • It is possible that the complainant will want an instant response. Reassure them that you will give them a response as soon as you have had time to consider it. Use this time to assess the gravity of the complaint, and then you can prioritise it. Don’t leave dealing with it for too long, though. Small issues can grow out of all proportion if they are not dealt with smartly. The priority scale you might use will probably be: now, later today, tomorrow or the day after, rather than next week.

Inform where necessary

  • Let everyone who needs to know, know what is going on. Any staff member who is the subject of a complaint must be told about it and any likely investigation of it as soon as the complaint is received.
  • Tell all parties that discussions are confidential. 
  • Keep those who are affected informed about what is happening, especially if the investigation takes longer than expected. Clear communications will help people to feel confident that you are handling the situation appropriately.
  • Procedure must be strictly followed or you might find yourself in an employment-related situation. There has been at least one case where a person was not told of a serious accusation until several weeks later, after an investigation had been carried out to determine whether an offence had occurred. Because of this procedural omission, the person was found not guilty in court and the board was required to pay the person $40,000.
  • You should call on the assistance of NZSTA or your sector representative group to help you follow this procedure correctly.
  • Taking too long to act invites speculation and encourages those who don’t need to know to become involved.

When you have the evidence

Seek to resolve the issue

  • Keep a record of everything.
  • Consider all possible resolutions and possible unintended outcomes. You might want to discuss these with a trusted colleague, NZSTA or your sector representative group.
  • Meet with the complainant to convey your decision or to discuss the options for resolving the issue.
  • If the complaint involves two parties, that is, one person complaining about another person, you might need to decide whether to bring the parties together to try to achieve a resolution. Depending on the seriousness of the complaint, you might need assistance to plan and manage this process. Again, use one of the services available to you. However, in more difficult cases this may not be an option.
  • Make a decision. Acknowledge any errors made, if necessary. Ask the complainant whether he/she is happy with the outcome. If not, offer further options that may be taken.
  • Follow up with a letter to the complainant detailing the discussion, the agreement, if any, you have reached, and the intended actions.
  • If the complaint involves an employee of the school, then you may need to put copies of the complaint, letter and resolution on the employee's file.

Feedback 

Seeking feedback helps you review your policies. 

One principal uses this format to get feedback on the school’s handling of complaints. A form is sent out to a complainant after the matter has been dealt with.

Recently you brought an issue to our attention. [Issue is described]. To ensure we have dealt with it effectively, please let us know by answering these questions:

  • How well did you feel we listened to you?
  • How comfortable did you feel about approaching the principal/staff member, or other school representatives?
  • How happy did you feel with how we resolved the issue?
  • Do you think there is anything that we can do to improve our system?
  • Other comments?

When seeking feedback from parents on your policy be clear about the purpose. Consider using a scale for answers, such as, 1 (not at all) to 4 (completely).

Resources for dealing with complaints

Education and the Law

The Educational Leaders website has advice on some of the legal aspects of employment:

Employment 

Difficult conversations

Managing difficult conversations is a skill principals need in numerous situations. This book might be useful for you:
Patterson, K., Grenny, J. et al. (2002) Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

What would you do?

Here are some real-life complaints. In light of this guide, consider how you might deal with each one.

Student complaint: A student has written a letter of complaint about his teacher, had all his class mates sign it, and taken it to the principal.

Parent complaint: The board has received a written complaint from a parent about the actions of Mr Higgins (a teacher). It states that while on playground duty, Mr Higgins separated two students who were fighting. Mr Higgins allegedly swore at this parent's child as he took the students to a corner of the playground to resolve the issue. The student was verbally abusive to Mr Higgins.

Multi-complaint: While waiting to pick up her child on a Saturday afternoon, a parent was smoking in her car. The groundsperson asked her to not smoke within the school grounds and the discussion that evolved included much swearing and abuse. Each party has complained to the principal about being abused by the other. Each story is different and each wants some form of action against the other party.

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