As someone who worked in the management of parent complaints for more than a decade, I am well aware that parents’ demands and expectations of schools have significantly increased over the years. I sympathise with principals and schools staff who are feeling abused by some parents, and want to share my experience as the complaints ‘frontline’ manager for a system of 50 schools and almost 20,000 students.
When the Principal Health and Well-being Survey by Associate Professor Philip Riley of ACU, was released, the Council of Catholic School Parents along with the other NSW peak parent associations hosted a Collaboration Forum to open up a discussion about this important issue. When the then Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli, arrived to see the mix of educators, parents and bureaucrats in attendance he declared “this is where the magic happens”.
While it doesn’t necessarily take ‘magic’ to achieve good school/parent relationships, there are some practical measures that schools can implement for a more harmonious environment for staff and a welcoming environment for parents.
Times have changed and parents today are different for many reasons. Societal pressures on them to ensure their child’s success have skyrocketed, compounded by exorbitant house prices and a shrinking, more specialised job market. In addition to this, we know that mental health issues are on the rise, can affect some interactions that schools have with parents.
Does this excuse the bad behaviour of some parents? Absolutely not! What it does point to however, is the need for each school or school system to have personnel trained in dispute resolution and complaints management. Justifiably, it is the duty of the principal to protect his/her staff and having a trained person to field complaints, will shield teachers from direct abuse. Often parents just need to let off a little steam and can then be steered back on to the path of reason once they have calmed down.
At the same time, it is the right of parents to advocate for their child. Children leave the warm nest of their homes to venture into large complex institutions where they themselves may be subjected to bullying, or unfair treatment. In dealing with parents over the years, I can’t say how many times I have heard them say “all I want is a fair go for my child”.
Having staff trained in dispute resolution and dedicated intermediaries in schools is an effective ‘circuit-breaker’. This is why the Council of Catholic School Parents works closely with tertiary institutes and school systems to provide training for pre-service and in-service teachers on parent engagement and dispute resolution.
Thanks to social media, parenting has become a competitive sport (cue ‘insta families’). This leaves parents highly stressed and looking for guidance and therefore presents an opportunity for schools to engage with parents by inviting guest speakers on parenting issues, circulating information in newsletters and reminding parents to act as role models for their children.
The relationship between parents and schools reaches far beyond that of a consumer/provider one as both are inextricably meshed in the joint venture of forming well-rounded, individuals. Therefore, new relationships need to be built that respect and accommodate the roles of parents and schools staff and it is up to schools to take the lead in this.
Linda McNeil is the Executive Director of the Council for Catholic School Parents and prior to that, she was the parent liaison and Resource Officer in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese for 10 years.