When Geoff Barton started teaching in 1985, parents’ evening – a brief five-minute chat – was the only time teachers saw most mums and dads. If families had a concern, they might write a letter, or call the school office.
Fast-forward three decades and the dynamics between schools and parents have changed dramatically. The voice of parents is louder, their expectations higher – and it’s much easier to instantly broadcast a complaint.
Research by academics at Bath Spa University suggests that in some cases the often delicate relationship between parents and teachers has shifted even further. Abusive behaviour by parents is experienced by a third of primary teachers, either online or on the school premises, at least once a month. A fifth of secondary school teachers are exposed to such behaviour once a month, according to the study. Female teachers were more likely to report such experiences.
“In the past, there wasn’t the same forensic focus on schools and school performance,” says Barton, a veteran headteacher who was elected general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders in February. “And, today, communication is so much quicker – access to teachers through email is so much quicker. That sometimes means there isn’t a detachment for parents or the school between what has happened and has been alleged.”
Barton, who was headteacher of King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk for 15 years, says teachers want parents to be engaged, but that some schools are still getting to grips with how to manage this relationship. Some are handing out guidelines warning families about defamatory comments online, or issuing a template complaint letter to parents to prevent angry email tirades. Others display a poster in their reception areas, outlining how the school expects parents to behave, and how families will be treated in return.
Jermaine Ravalier, senior lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University and one of the authors of the research, says abusive behaviour often results in stress and sickness absence. “It can lead to impact on physical health as well as mental health, things like having panic attacks. If a teacher is stressed then undoubtedly it also has an impact on the class’s learning.”
But closer parental scrutiny of schools and higher parental expectations do not always lead to a negative outcome, says Barton. Previous generations of parents often saw their role as secondary. “They’d send their child to school and at the end of school their child came out and they have a qualification, either a good one or a bad one depending on whether the child had worked hard or not. There was a bit more detachment generally. That’s not to say we didn’t hear from parents, but if we did, usually you would get a letter from them and usually you’d phone them up at the end of the day.”
Teachers weren’t expected to respond instantly, and parents didn’t generally turn up in reception asking to see a teacher. Now some parents are a lot more comfortable complaining to higher powers as a first point of contact, or posting on Facebook.
Yet parents are getting a huge amount more from schools than they did even 10 years ago, says Barton. “Many will be reporting on a child’s progress every six weeks so they’ll get a progress report in every subject, from every teacher at the end of every half-term. At some schools they can check attendance every day. That’s an extraordinary level of accountability and openness of information.”
Tania Tirraoro, founder of Special Needs Jungle, a website that gives advice to parents who have children with special educational needs, agrees that parents are more empowered than ever before and sees that as a positive development. “When we were kids the school was always right, but nowadays, especially with the information you can find on the internet, people are more willing to stand up for their children to make sure they get what they need.”
Most of the traffic to Special Needs Jungle comes through Facebook, where groups of parents share their experiences about navigating the system. But the idea of parents discussing a school’s policy or announcements on social media, and the threat of posts going viral or getting picked up by the press, is a worry for headteachers.
Anne (not her real name), a teacher in Devon who was signed off sick after five months of being bullied by a parent, said some schools were reluctant to stand up to parents. “With social media, parental voice is unbelievably loud and I’m not sure schools know how to react. There’s a fear that parents could threaten to write to Ofsted, to write to the papers, to just put something on social media – and if it goes viral that puts the school in a really vulnerable place. Handling difficult parents is a grey area. There aren’t any government policies.”
Anne and her colleagues were targeted by a parent who would demand to speak to her on an almost daily basis, and made allegations about a staff member’s character. The parent also followed staff outside the school premises and attempted to stir up support among other parents at the school gate.
For younger teachers, the consequences of such harassment can be devastating. “It got to a stage where myself and the other members of my team were in a state of anxiety. There was that lingering threat of, ‘Who is she going to start on next?’ For me at the beginning of my career, I thought, could she end my career? She could spread malicious gossip and it could be completely unfounded.”
Given the additional pressures that staff face, it’s not surprising that almost a third of teachers leave the state sector within five years of qualifying, she says.
Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed the retention rate among secondary heads fell from 91% in 2012 to 87% in 2015. Barton said the figures were a concern, and that the ASCL plans to ensure younger heads are given more support by older colleagues. “One of the things I’m keen to do is to make sure those of us who are the veterans of the system are passing on the knowledge and skills but also the sense of resilience and how you withstand a sense of, ‘Is this personal?’ and how you develop a thicker skin.”
Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores academy in Harlow, which was profiled in the Channel 4 series Educating Essex, said parents are entitled to criticise schools. “As part of parents’ induction to school we give them a suggested paragraph to write in emails, so that if their child comes home and says, ‘Mr Goddard did this and this today’ they can approach it in a particular way.”
Most disputes can be quickly solved if schools have a clear policy that allows time for parents to cool off. Russell Hobby, head of the National Association of Headteachers, said it was not just teaching staff who were being challenged by the public. “We live in a society that is just less deferent of professional expertise. We find people challenge [experts] more and that’s good in many ways – I don’t want to live in a deferent society, but one of the things about schools is it’s not a customer service, it’s not a popularity contest. If you run a school you may have to make unpopular decisions.”
A third of primary school teachers experienced derogatory words or behaviour from parents either online or on school premises at least once a month.
Among secondary school teachers, one in five experienced derogatory behaviour once a month. This was mostly on school premises – only 4% of such behaviour occurred online.
Female teachers are more likely than male ones to experience abusive behaviour on school premises. Half reported they encountered this several times a year or more, compared with 40% of male teachers.
A fifth of teaching assistants were exposed to negative words or behaviour either online (5%) or on school premises (16%) at least once a month.
A third of new teachers who started jobs in English state schools in 2010 left within five years.
Acceptances to teacher training courses dropped by 7% this year. The government has missed its targets for teacher recruitment in England for five consecutive years.
Source: study led Dr Joe Walsh, lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University, and Dr Jermaine Ravalier, senior lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University; DFE; Ucas.
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