It’s interesting that the relationship between parents and their child’s school can be so precarious, because both parties ultimately want the same thing – for the child to be happy and successful. But relationships with parents require careful management.
Parents need to know they’re appreciated and listened to, but it also needs to be made clear that they do not run the school. If you’ve ever worked at a school that jumps through hoops to meet every parent’s frivolous whim, you’ll know the problems it can cause.
It’s important to remember that parents aren’t one homogeneous group, so you shouldn’t treat them as such. In fact, most parents are harmless – they drop their children off at school, and just want to know that their child will be learning, happy and safe until they come home at the end of the day. Difficult parents are likely to be in the minority. The bad news, as a middle leader, is you’ll be considered a port of call for parents who want to complain. The good news is that are plenty of people senior to you who can support you, or even take over the management of the complaint when necessary.
Let’s start with an example. You’re on duty at the end of the day and an angry parent comes marching over to you. She tells you that her son is being bullied, and that the class teacher knows about it, but is refusing to do anything about it. The nature of the complaint may vary, but my advice for dealing with parent complaints doesn’t. Here are four key tips:
1. Get indoors
If possible, invite the parent indoors to discuss the issue further. This lets you avoid the gaze of other parents in the playground and stops other people from ‘helpfully’ getting involved. If the parent refuses to go inside, don’t panic – you’ll just need to stay calm and manage the situation.
2. Stay calm
It’s vital that you stay in control of the situation, and that means keeping calm. Let the parent finish their rant and listen – you could make notes so that you don’t forget any of the details. Don’t feel as though you have to resolve the complaint there and then. Explain to the parent that you’ll follow up the complaint with the people involved. That’s all they need to know.
3. Maintain a united front
If a parent complains about another member of staff, then no matter what you think about them, you absolutely must not criticise that colleague. As a middle leader you have a responsibility to look after the staff in your team. Get the parent to write down the complaint (or make notes as they talk) and promise to follow it up with the teacher in question. Follow it up as soon as you can with the member of staff concerned, in private.
4. If you need to, pass it
There are a number of people in your school who are more senior to you, so use them. Go to them for advice, and if you really feel out of your depth, ask if they can take over managing the complaint or at least help you deal with it. Don’t struggle alone.
A parent making a complaint in the playground isn’t something that other parents will remember. What will stay with them is how the complaint was dealt with – so stay calm and try to keep the conversation adult-to-adult, if possible.
Parent workshops are a fantastic way to strengthen the relationship between staff and parents, because they help parents understand how to support their child with their education. They’re also important for making sure that parents and the school are on the same page.
How often have you heard a parent say, ‘I want to help with his maths homework, but I don’t know which methods you’re teaching – I only know what I did when I was at school’? Workshops can smooth out these issues, and are a prime opportunity to explain your curriculum and the reasoning behind it.
Planning a parent workshop is very similar to planning an INSET. Be evidence-based, start with ‘why’ and make the objective of your talk clear.
There is, however, one crucial difference – when talking to parents, you’re the expert. Unlike staff INSETs, you can’t rely on parents having their own prior knowledge that they can bring to the training. They’re there because they want to learn from you.
You can present the parents with questions to consider and offer prompts for group discussions, but most of the parent workshop will be you talking and answering questions. Here’s my advice:
1. Keep it simple, avoiding educational jargon and acronyms
2. Provide a handout that summarises the talk which parents can take home with them and refer to in future
3. Avoid using examples of specific classes and year groups – even something as innocent as, ‘They do this very well in Year 5’ may be interpreted as ‘it’ not being done very well in all other year groups
4. Try to repeat the workshop two or three times a term to make it as convenient as possible for parents to attend. You could, for example, run a session before school, a session straight after the morning drop-off and a session after school.
Consider running the workshop on an evening when the parents are already in school, such as parents’ evening. This way, class teachers can direct parents over to the workshop during their meeting with them: ‘If you’d like more advice on how you can support Fred with his maths at home, then I know that our maths leader is running a workshop in the hall in about half an hour. It might be worth dropping in.’
A word of warning, however – the parents who attend parent workshops are likely to be the ones already reading with their children, helping with their homework and making sure they have their book bag or clean PE kit. Unfortunately, the parents who really need your support may not be there, so make sure you find a way to get this information out to them too by email or putting it on the school website.
Good relationships are at the heart of running any school, and maintaining them should be a priority. Good relationships are never complete; circumstances can change, and trust can be eroded far more quickly than it can be earned, so they require constant work.
Zoë Paramour is a middle leader in a North London primary school, as well as a freelance writer and journalist specialising in education and politics; this article is an edited extract taken from her book How to be an Outstanding Primary Middle Leader, published by Bloomsbury