The group charged with representing the needs of parents and their children in Ireland is pushing the Department of Education and Skills to lay down the process families should follow to resolve complaints they have with their child’s schools. Emily Logan, the Ombudsman for Children, argues that the DES is failing in its responsibilities because it won’t formalize the steps that school officials and parents can take to resolve conflicts between families and their schools.
Currently, how parents approach schools if conflicts arise is negotiated between education authorities and the teachers unions. According to Logan, parents are not consulted on the process. When attempting to solve problems like bullying, transportation, grades and disciplinary problems, parents are expected to go to the teachers, then the principal and after that, to the district.
Áine Lynch, CEO of the NPC (Primary), says it is time for a change. “We are not happy with the complaints procedure and have fundamental concerns about how it operates. This is a mechanism for parents to follow within a school and yet neither parents, nor the national body that represents parents, were ever consulted.”
The set-up can be very intimidating for parents, says Lynch. “The initial stages of a complaint have an informal sense, but as soon as a parent or guardian is not happy at that level, they must put their complaint in writing to the chair of the board of management. They find themselves thrust into an adversarial system which can be intimidating and daunting, and then drop their child off to the very people they are complaining about.”
Contributing to the problem, according to Lynch, is that schools also occasionally ignore whatever process they do have. When asked by Peter McGuire of the Irish Times what changes Lynch would like to see, she says that complaint procedures should be less centralized. Schools should be allowed to set their own policies, with due deference not only to the opinions of the parents, but also to the makeup of each individual community.
Another good change, Lynch suggests, would be allow the Ombudsman to serve as the final forum of appeal for parents who are unhappy with how their problems were handled. Currently, families can take their issues to the Ombudsman, but the office is limited to suggesting policy changes, not to rule on individual complaints.
Figures from the Ombudsman for Children’s office show that parents lodge 75 per cent of complaints against schools, with three to four per cent coming from children. These tend to be children who do not live with their parents. Complaints have also been made by extended family members and professionals working directly with children, including teachers, principals and social workers. In 2012, the NPC answered 88 calls from parents about the school complaints procedure; 42 calls were from parents concerned that a teacher was bullying the child, while 25 related to allegations of bullying by school principals.