What to do if you are unhappy with your child’s school

Barnaby Lenon is a highly-respected education professional. He helped to set up the London Academy of Excellence free school, and is a Board Member of the exam regulator Ofqual and a Trustee of the New Schools Network. He was previously the Headmaster of Harrow School. This is the third in a three part series that helps parents to understand how they can best navigate the school system. The first part is here, and the second part is here.

There could be a variety of reasons why you are unhappy with your child’s school. It could be something small, such as poor quality notes given in one particular class, or it could be a wider issue with the school’s ethos or ideals. Should you wish to act upon your concerns, here is a short guide for doing so.

1) First, you need to double check that your information is correct. Academically, the results of some schools change a lot from one year to the next. For some schools certain types of data can be misleading due to circumstance; for example, a school’s GCSE grades may not seem impressive, but if their intake included many pupils who are academically weak or for whom English is not spoken at home, the results may actually be good. For small schools just one or two badly-performing pupils can greatly affect scores which summarise the performance of a whole year group. It is therefore important to not go in ‘all guns blazing’. You need to check your facts with the school and you need to confer with other parents.

2) Speak to the parent governor of the school. This will give you a better sense of whether your grievance is shared elsewhere, and also of the viability of having it resolved.

3) See the head teacher and press him/her for answers. This is obviously crucial, and you will quickly discover if they were aware of the problem and working on it, or if they even believe that it is a problem in the first place.

4) If there is no improvement, and you are convinced there is a problem, get together with other parents and write collectively to the chairman of governors. This is the most drastic step, but can be necessary if the previous meetings have revealed an unwillingness to fix the issue from within.

Below is a case study of how this can all work in practice.

A parent had a Year 13, 17-year old daughter at a comprehensive school. She said that she was doing well in two of her three A-levels but that the teacher of Economics was ‘useless’. Looking at her files of notes showed that, compared to other subjects her notes were thin and disorganised. Homework was rarely set and tests were rare. She had only two pieces of marked work last term and there had been only one school exam in the whole of year 12. The pupils had not been issued with a textbook.

The parent asked the Director of Studies at the school for details of the Economics A-level grades from last year. This showed that 16 students had taken the subject and none scored an A* or A, there was one B grade, six Cs, five Ds, and four fails. This was worse than many other subjects.

Economics is a difficult subject, especially as it is rarely taken at GCSE. However, the daughter had four A grades and five B grades at GCSE and was predicted an A grade and a B grade in her two best A-level subjects. In Economics she was predicted a D. ABD are not grades which would provide access to a good university: she needed a B in Economics. So this was not a small matter.

In October the mother arranged to see the head teacher. He confirmed that the Economics teacher was weak and would be leaving at the end of term. A replacement would be found.

The situation was now critical. The current teacher was weak and the chances that the school could find a good replacement in January (the middle of the school year) are slim. The parent could not afford to hire a private tutor.

The parent then contacted the parents of other pupils taking Economics A-level this coming June and they arranged to see the head teacher collectively. Firmly but calmly they insisted that the school find a good Economics teacher to lay on extra lessons in the coming Christmas and Easter holidays. This would cost the school unbudgeted money but was more important than some of the items of spending which had been budgeted for.

The head said that he would do what he could. This was not a guarantee, so the parents wrote to the chairman of governors to describe the problem.

Two weeks’ later the chairman and head agreed to find the money and, if the replacement teacher was not good enough, find a retired or part-time teacher in the area to lay on the extra lessons. The parent was satisfied with the action, and in the event the girl in question achieved the grades required to get into her first choice university.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.