Challenges related to complaints, confidentiality and your relationship with school

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Families who contact us raise a number of questions or concerns about their relationship with school, including about confidentiality, conflict or difficulties making a complaint.

On this page:

1. Challenges if your concern or complaint has not been resolved by the school.

2. Challenges related to your level of stress or distress in raising concerns at school, or in your relationship with school staff.

3. Challenges if you have been excluded from the school by a legal order.

4. Challenges related to the confidentiality of your child’s and family’s information.

Introduction

Below we raise some common challenges related to complaints confidentiality or families relationships with their child’s school, and offer some suggestions for dealing with them. However, individual children’s needs and situations vary, and families take different approaches to advocating for their child.

Some general tips on raising a concern with school are:

  • You have the right to raise any concern you have with school or with your child’s education.
  • Understanding your child’s rights will help you to feel confident that your requests are reasonable.
  • Try to focus on one issue at a time. It’s worth taking time to gather all the information you can about the issue, to work out how express your concerns clearly and calmly, and to focus on the outcome you want for your child.
  • You always have the right to a support person or advocate in your dealings with school.

Follow these links for more about how to effectively raise a concern with school:

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Complaints, confidentiality and your relationship with staff in a Catholic or independent school

Most of the content on this page relates most directly to complaints, confidentiality and relationships between familes and staff in a government school. However, many of the tips are also relevant to Catholic or independent schools, and all of the links offered also cover information relevant to all three school sectors.

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  1. Challenges if your concern or complaint has not be resolved by the school.

If you wish to raise a concern or make a complaint about some aspect of your child’s education, an important early step is to locate a copy of the school’s official complaints policy. It is often on your school’s website or in the family information pack, or you can ask for a copy from the front office. Following the steps outlined in the policy helps to demonstrate your willingness to work with the school to resolve your issue.

  • Visit the section A guide to the complaints process for a details explanation of the steps involved in raising and resolving a complaint in a government, Catholic or independent school.

If you have been trying to resolve an issue with your child’s school, but you are unhappy with their response, a very useful step for many families is to seek support from an advocacy agency like ACD. Advocacy organisations can provide information and practical help in a variety of ways to help you resolve problems at school. Many families find them to a very valuable support that can both reduce stress and help them be more effective at advocating for their child.

The information and tips provided in Learning Together cover many of the issues that an advocate would help you with, and might well be sufficient for you to advocate for yourself. But please do not hesitate to contact us or another advocacy service if you require more direct, personal advice and support.

  • Find more information about being an effective advocate for your child in Raising a concern with school, including an explanation of how an advocate or support person can help, and how to get access to this kind of assistance.

If you have been through all of the steps in your school’s complaints policy to the point of trying to resolve the issue with the principal, and you are unsatisfied with the school’s response, you can take your complaint ‘up the ladder’ – for example to the DET regional office, in the case of a government school. The DET regional office can assist, but only once you have exhausted the process in your school. If you have not done so, they will ask you to go through the internal process before they can assist you.

It’s also important that school staff have skills in handling conflict or responding effectively to concerns from parents or carers. Schools can get training from DET in the skills needed to respond to concerns from parents and carers, and can get support to do so from the regional office.

You also have the right to take your complaint to an external complaints mechanism at any time. Another option is to seek support from a mediation service such as the Dispute Settlement Service – a free service of the Victorian Department of Justice. In our experience, some families have found this very beneficial.

As a parent or carer, it is your role to advocate for the very best outcome that can be achieved for your child. At the same time, you are most likely to succeed if your goal is realistic. That does not mean that you should simply accept the school telling you something is impossible, when you know it’s within your child’s rights and the school’s role.

The best way to address this is to inform yourself about your child’s rights and entitlements in the support system, and the expectations of what school should do. You can do this by reading resources like Learning Together (in particular see the sections A guide to the support system, Education planning for your child and Education and your child’s rights) and by talking with a support worker in an advocacy organisation like ACD. They can often help you to clarify what outcome would address your concerns, and help you understand what is a reasonable request.

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  1. Challenges related to your level of stress or distress in raising concerns with school, or your relationship with school staff.

Parents and carers can sometimes find it stressful to advocate for their child, even if the school is trying to be helpful and supportive. Reasons might include:

  • the system and the language used can be confusing
  • you might be unaware of your child’s rights and your own
  • schools might need to be more aware of their obligations to students with disabilities, and the resources available to help them fulfill these
  • staff might need additional training in disability and meeting diverse learning needs
  • schools and families can have different understandings of what equal participation means at school
  • some parents and carers feel that their views are less valuable than those of teachers or other ‘experts’
  • some parents and carers feel intimidated to speak up to someone in authority, or ‘take on’ the school system
  • some parents and carers worry that they are ‘making trouble’ for their child if they criticise the school
  • these issues can be upsetting, because there are about your child’s wellbeing.

We hope Learning Together provides both information and inspiration to help meet these challenges. We encourage you to explore the resource, and to come back to it when you need it. You might also suggest to school staff that they check out Learning Together. Many schools find our resources very helpful. Schools can get training from DET in the skills needed to respond to concerns from parents and carers, and can get support to do so from the regional office.

In particular we encourage you to read the section Raising a concern with school. This will take you, step-by-step, through the process of thinking through, raising, investigating and hopefully resolving your concern in partnership with the school. Sometimes it can be easier to tackle an issue one step at a time. This section also includes many stories from other parents and carers about how they successfully resolved an issue with school.

We also encourage you to consider seeking advocacy support, whether from an advocacy organization like ACD or elsewhere. The section Raising a concern with school also includes details about how an advocate can help – including by giving you emotional and practical support – and where you can find this kind of assistance.

Getting external support or help to advocate for your child is particularly important if there is tension or conflict between you and one or more of the school staff. Another option is to seek support from a mediation service such as the Dispute Settlement Service – a free service of the Victorian Department of Justice. In our experience, some families have found this very beneficial.

Taking your concern ‘up the ladder’ can be very beneficial, and can result in a complete change in the way a school responds to a parent or carer’s concerns. In the experience of some families we spoke to, schools might not always be fully aware of the resources available to them to help meet their legal obligations to students with disabilities. Involving the DET regional office, for example, can therefore be a very constructive step that benefits both the student and the school.

If you feel that you have experienced discrimination, abuse, harassment or victimization (victimisation is when a person experiences discrimination or harassment as a result of having made a complaint), you can take your complaint ‘up the ladder’ (see issue 1 above) or to an external complaints mechanism. Discrimination, harassment and victimization, including of parents and carers of people with disabilities, is prohibited by equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, and by the Commonwealth Disability Standards for Education.

It is very important to stand up for yourself. It is also important to take, as they say, the ‘long view’, and to consider what you need to do, in order to feel good about dropping your child off at school each day, and maintaining (or rebuilding) an effective working relationship with school. An external advocate or support person can help you think through these issues.

The other thing to bear in mind is that sometimes seeking another school is the best option for the child or young person and their family. However, there can be significant costs or down sides to changing schools, and it is usually best (unless there is an urgent and serious reason to leave a school, for example related to your child’s safety) to take some time to investigate your options, and not make too hasty a decision.

  • This is a very personal decision. In the section Choosing a school we share some reflections from other parents and carers about what they considered in making the decision as to whether to change schools.

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  1. Challenges if you have been excluded from the school by a legal order.

If there has been a significant breakdown in the relationship between you and the staff at your school, it is very important to seek external assistance to resolve the issue, and to repair your relationship with the school.

For example, in cases where a parent or carer has been excluded from the school premises by a legal order, ACD support staff have been able to convene a meeting between the family and the school staff, off campus. Our staff have worked with the parents or carers to help them focus on the outcome they wanted and how best to express that, and have helped everyone to come to a mutually acceptable solution.

You can seek this kind of support from an advocacy agency such as ACD, from a mediation service such as the Dispute Settlement Service – a free service of the Victorian Department of Justice, or from the regional DET office.

Advocating for your child can be stressful and upsetting for many parents and carers. We encourage you to read the materials in the section Raising a concern with school. This will take you, step-by-step, through the process of thinking through, raising, investigating and hopefully resolving your concern in partnership with the school. It includes many tips and ideas, including issues like:

  • Thinking through the problem and what outcome you want
  • Raising your problem effectively
  • Negotiating the best outcome you can
  • Handling conflict effectively
  • Dealing with strong emotions
  • Taking your complaint ‘up the ladder’, and
  • Conserving your energy for what matters most (what some people call ‘picking your battles’).

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  1. You are concerned that confidential information about your child or family has been shared by school staff without your permission or your child’s permission.

Various Victorian laws protect your right to confidentiality, and the privacy of your child’s and your family’s information at school and in dealing with DET and service providers.

Sometimes staff at DET, your child’s school, an assessment service, therapist or other health services might need to collect personal information about you and your child, including about their health status or disability. They are required to store this information securely and keep it confidential.

Families often find it very helpful when schools or service providers are able to share information with other services about their child’s diagnosis or needs, and even work together directly. It is the school’s responsibility to make sure that information about your child is communicated to relevant staff and service providers, in and outside the school. However, they must always seek your written permission before sharing any such information about your child or family. The SSG is a good forum to decide how information-sharing will happen, and for the school to seek your written permission to share information about your child, or to make referrals to any external service. It’s a good idea for you to keep a written record who, when and for what purpose you give this permission.

There may be some aspects of your child’s personal or medical care (for example) that only need to be communicated to those people directly involved. Your family and child’s right to privacy must be respected at all times. Good planning will identify who needs to know what and how this can be communicated.

If you have a concern about sharing of your personal information without your permission, you can raise this at an SSG or another meeting with the principal or other staff. See Raising a concern with school and A guide to the complaints process for information about how to raise your concern effectively, and about the process for doing so.

If you have concerns about privacy, and the way private information about your child or family is handled by your child’s school, DET or other agencies, you can contact the Office of the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection (previously Privacy Victoria).

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