1 Dec 2022

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier defends office's record on complaints about schools

4:31 pm on 1 December 2022
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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says the average time for resolving complaints about schools is four-and-a-half months. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The chief ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier, has defended his office's record on complaints about schools following calls for a faster route for resolving disputes.

Boshier said families should not be deterred from bringing complaints to the Ombudsman and his office resolved its investigations as quickly as it could, often in favour of the complainants.

His comments were prompted by RNZ reporting about the need for a disputes panel that could consider disagreements between schools and families more quickly than his office.

"It's really important for me to convey to New Zealanders how accessible we are and how available we are to help them in relation to problems and issues, and I wanted to give an assurance of the fact that the Ombudsman was available and is good and adept at handling complaints in relation to school boards of trustees," Boshier said.

His office dealt with about 100 complaints a year about schools and a further 200 concerning Official Information Act requests to schools, he said.

The average time for resolving complaints about schools was four-and-a-half months, he said.

"Some we're able to resolve quite quickly. It may be that either the parents or the school recognises immediately there's a problem and they reverse their initial concerns.

"Some are really complicated and take us some months. But it's wrong to say that the Ombudsman takes a long time to do everything because the Ombudsman doesn't and moves pretty speedily when we have to.

"We're faster than a court but this is not a quick-fire, let's-do-it-next-week operation. I insist on quality and natural justice.

"Some take time because they're hotly disputed and the school board of trustees may want me to meet with them. So I take as long as it takes in order to get the right result but I'm conscious that delay works against people."

In his nearly seven years with the office, no school board had failed to comply with his recommendations even though they were not binding, Boshier said.

"Once we get to the stage of saying 'we recommend you do as follows', invariably the school, or for that matter any other agency we deal with, wants to follow our recommendation and be seen as reasonable, so it's a pretty successful process," he said.

The number of complaints about schools had increased, Boshier said. He believed that was due to increased awareness rather any rise in disputes between schools and families.

The most common complaints were about boards of trustees failing to follow procedures properly when disciplining students, he said.

Back to school.

The Chief Ombudsman office's decisions did not always result in a child returning to a school that they had been excluded or expelled from. (file picture) Photo: 123RF

For example, the Ombudsman found a secondary school followed an unreasonable process for excluding and expelling students for gross misconduct and recommended an apology, re-enrolment if the student wanted that, and amendment to the school's records.

In another situation, the Ombudsman found a school was justified in excluding a student who struck a teacher in the face.

"We've got to investigate and get the facts and it could go either way, but I have to say a lot of the time, unfortunately, school boards of trustees have trouble with their process and they don't quite get it right and we have to ask them to undo it, unpick it, and do it rather better," Boshier said.

Some complaints were resolved before they reached him but those at "the top end" that he dealt with personally were usually resolved in favour of the complainant, he said.

"More often than not, I uphold a complaint that a school board of trustees has not done the process correctly and that the end result has been unfair and unreasonable to the student."

However, the office's decisions did not always result in a child returning to a school that they had been excluded or expelled from, Boshier said.

"For the most part, I'm not seeing that as an outcome. I think parents have often got the bit between their teeth and they don't actually want to have much to do with the school and want simply an apology, the record corrected. Every so often it works that there is a truly restorative outcome but you'd have to say that's not the majority," he said.

"What most concerns a lot of parents is the fact that if a child is expelled or excluded there is a school record which could be accessed forever and often what's most needed is a correction of the record so that, in the event that we find the process unreasonable, they're able to have a fair for the future and their careers."

Boards sometimes "rubber-stamped" principals' decisions but that was not their job, Boshier said.

"They are an essential safeguard to make sure that they agree with the reasonableness both of the principals' approach and also the end result."

Boards were volunteers and he admired their commitment, but they needed to remember their decisions could have a big effect on children's lives, he said.

"It can alter a whole student's life and I cannot stress enough how important it is to be fair and to get it right and to acknowledge when it hasn't been right that you need to re-do it so that that student has got a better chance," he said.

Boshier strongly advised boards to contact the School Trustees Association for guidance when making decisions and his office had also published resources to help them understand their obligations better and reduce the likelihood of mistakes.

He wanted to resolve all types of complaints more quickly and the office was "absolutely committed to speed", he said, but it took time to get both sides of a story, examine the relevant rules, reach a provisional decision, and finalise it.

He supported calls for a school dispute resolution panel.

"It's right and proper that there be something between school boards of trustees and the Ombudsman. That's the usual model in New Zealand and at the moment there is no disputes process," he said.

"Sometimes, some of these complaints can be dealt with actually quite speedily and I think if there were an efficient good disputes resolution process, it might knock out the more light-weight ones."

Boshier said his office was celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and was the oldest Ombudsman's Office outside of Scandinavia.

He said his office was also recognised as one of the best resourced Ombudsmen in the world.

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