Bad Behaviour (parents, not children)
13 June 2023 | Applicable law: England and Wales | 6 minute read
One of the reasons often cited by parents who opt to send their children to independent schools is the smaller class sizes which such schools usually offer. What underpins this advantage, in the parents' mind, is that teachers will know the pupils well and have time to give personal attention to each of them.
Alongside this, parents expect ease of access to those teachers and to the school's leadership if they have any concerns about their child's progress. When this works well, it can be a very positive relationship – the school operating as a community, and the parents and staff working in collaboration to ensure the children's wellbeing and positive progress.
But there is an increasing trend, much more noticeable in schools in recent years, for this parent/school relationship to be regarded as quite transactional in nature, at least so far as the parents are concerned.
This can cause some parents to believe that their payment of fees to the school will guarantee delivery by the school of certain outcomes for their child. This may be an expectation of significant academic success – such as excellent results in public exams or a place at a well-regarded university. Or their child's 'right' to a place in the top sets for subjects taught in ability divisions, to selection for games teams or dramatic or musical performances, or appointment to positions of responsibility within the student community (head boy/girl; games captain etc).
If their child does not then attain whatever the outcome expected by the parent is, the parent may react badly - looking to remonstrate with the school, or worse. This can even occur in relation to a relatively minor disciplinary sanction – such as a detention for a misdemeanour in class. Often, in these situations, the parents will prohibit the staff from discussing the issue with the child.
Of course, we all understand the natural wish of a parent to protect their child, but, in these cases, this is taken to extremes, and often based on the parents' expectations and ambitions, rather than those of the child. It is also borne of entitlement – they have assumed that the school would deliver a particular outcome and have been badly disappointed.
This attitude can pose real problems for a school. Besides the potential adverse impact on the child (their parents' response making them feel that they have 'failed'), it can badly affect the way the parents interact not only with the teachers who have the immediate responsibility for their child's education but also with the school's senior leadership who oversee the delivery of that education.
The immediate recipient of the complaint will usually be the class teacher or head of year. Even experienced teachers may quail when faced with an angry, sometimes abusive, parent, but the impact on more junior colleagues can be dramatic. Given the current difficulties in recruiting and retaining quality teaching staff, this is very unhelpful, creating an uncomfortable working experience.
If the contention is then escalated, as often it needs to be, both for the immediate teacher's protection and because the parent will not back down, the senior leadership of the school will have to spend much of their time and energy in dealing with it.
Ultimately some of these issues, even if they arise from what objectively might seem quite minor origins, may have to be referred to a panel of governors. This is admittedly rare, but, when it occurs, such a 'stage 3' appeal is immensely demanding of resource and depressing within the school community.
So how can a school look to improve the situation?
In essence what is required is some 're-education' of the parents, so that they come to recognise that their child's education needs to be a collaborative enterprise involving parents, staff and students, which relies on mutual trust and understanding and, in particular, good working relationships between staff and parents acting together in the best interests of the student; and also so that they acknowledge the school's teachers and its leaders as educational experts, whose decisions or recommendations in relation to their child need to be respected.
A step in the right direction to achieving this can be a formal statement of the behaviours expected of the parents in relation to the school. A 'code of conduct' for parents is not unusual in the maintained sector. In the independent sector, it may be helpful to adopt slightly softer terminology – say describing it as a 'protocol' – but it can then form part of the terms and conditions of the school's contract with the parents. It is important for it to link across cohesively to the school's complaints policy, and also to the expulsion policy, as that is the ultimate sanction, if the relationship between school and parents breaks down completely.
Such a protocol might be structured as follows:
- A brief introduction explaining the school's ethos and approach; the need for the parents' commitment to support these; and the reason why the principles underpinning a successful relationship are set out in the protocol.
- A series of behaviours and understandings required of the parents, including:
- respect for the school staff and their decisions (taken with the child's best interests at heart);
- polite courteous behaviour, in person and in writing;
- recognition that particular outcomes cannot be guaranteed;
- appreciation that, where a conflict of interest between a parent and their child arises, the school will almost always regard the child's interests as taking precedence;
- a reminder to separated or divorced parents in particular of the need to behave properly in relation to each other and the school, for the wellbeing of their child;
- the need for the school to be allowed access to the child to seek to resolve issues; and
- the importance of the child being involved in discussions, so they can hear and be heard.
- A statement of what behaviours will not be tolerated (including posting defamatory, offensive or derogatory comments about the school or any student, parent, member of staff or governor on social media sites).
- An explanation of the appropriate routes for raising concerns (linking to guidelines about which staff members to contact and the school's complaints policy).
Of course, no simple document can achieve an overnight improvement in behaviour or relationship. Indeed, how many parents even read the terms and conditions applying to their child's place at the school, beyond noticing the termly fee? But the benefits of such a protocol are threefold:
- Its introduction can be promoted to staff as appreciation by the governors of the difficulties which the staff may be facing 'on the frontline'.
- In the event that a parent adopts a rude or unreasonable approach, the school can point out the principles which apply.
- If a formal complaint is taken forward, the basis of the school's position will have been clearly stated, and agreed to by the parents at the outset, which, in legal terms, is important.
In addition, such a protocol can form a small but important role in a wider campaign, which would need to be led by the Head but modelled by all school staff, in conveying to parents of current and prospective students at the school, a clear and consistent message about how the school will seek to work with them in relation to their children and what the school expects of them. In the end, it is to do with parents respecting them as education professionals.
We have been involved in preparing such protocols (and adapting schools' other policies to take account of them). If you would be interested in discussing what might be suitable for your school, please do contact us.