In other sectors customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff: Why do we accept if from parents?

TES, 08.04.16, former HMC Chair Dr Bernard Trafford, headmaster of leading independent The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle on why schools should not put up with parents phoning us in the evening to complain. 

Earlier this week independent school teachers told ATL’s conference that they find themselves on call to parents 24/7. Claire Kellett from Somerset claimed teachers “are in thrall to a culture of the customer always being right”.

Perhaps she works in a boarding school. That relatively small minority of teachers might too easily be dismissed as getting what they are paid (and parents pay a fortune) for. That would be wrong. The phenomenon spreads: neither independent nor maintained day schools are immune.

Nowadays everyone has ownership, client-power. On trains we’re termed not passengers but customers, welcomed as if personally to “your 08.05 service”.

Setting to one side the decision to remove the requirement that maintained schools appoint parent governors, government constantly restates its commitment to parent power. Parental complaints can trigger Ofsted inspections. Suggestions regularly emanate from Westminster that dissatisfied parents should be able to remove heads or even governors. Parents get funding to set up free school.

I like parents. They’re not the bane of teachers’ lives – or shouldn’t be – but some are prone to blowing things out of all proportion. Occasionally such parents enter my modest office, politely thanking me for seeing them. When I know they’ve behaved foully to people lower down the chain, I remonstrate with them: the conversation seldom goes well.

Other parents are as objectionable to me as they are to my colleagues. There’s a measure of fairness in that.

In other walks of life customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff. Witness the signs on station platforms, in airports and hospitals, stating the fact explicitly. That message doesn’t seem to have reached those parents who scream down the phone at school receptionists or send those late-night emails after “supper with a glass or two of wine [when] they’ve heard about a child’s day and its injustice”, as ATL conference heard.

Some schools publish teachers’ email addresses; even phone numbers. In a boarding environment, this might appear essential – a houseparent must be contactable. In other settings I’d call it unwise. Even so, parents can work out how the school generates email staff addresses, so we couldn’t prevent them from sending a message direct, even if we wanted to.

Thus, to protect teachers, we need to lay down clear ground-rules. Even someone running a boarding house is allowed time off: there must be emergency phone contact, but there can be no absolute requirement of staff to take phone calls at any hour of the day or night. Schools should lay down firm guidelines as to when it is acceptable to phone staff: and stipulate what constitutes the emergency that would render extraordinary contact acceptable.

Is that pushing it, even for those parents shelling out £33,000 a year? I don’t think so.

We have no control over when emails arrive. But we can be individually strong and decline to read them when they come at night. I know. I succumb to temptation and, too often, read them even at 10pm on a Friday. I shouldn’t.

Let’s make be clear with ourselves and to parents. No parent should demand an instant reply to an email, nor even by a certain time. Usually any complaint (that’s what we’re talking about) requires a measure of investigation before a satisfactory reply can be issued.

The first discipline needs to come from teachers themselves: don’t read those things at night.

Second, at an institutional level, schools should discourage colleagues from emailing one another outside an agreed set of hours: and school leaders, the SLT, should lead by example and never break that rule.

Sometimes I feel the need to remind the whole staff that, say, I’ll be out all day at a meeting. I use my phone to send that email from the train at 7am as I hurtle towards London, rather than the night before: the head shouldn’t send even dull, routine emails to colleagues at night.

I know some parents simply won’t be tamed. But the majority should be, as long as we tell them what we can do: what we shouldn’t be expected to; and then avoid breaking our own rules.

Such guidelines won’t solve all the problems: but they will help.

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