In an unusual case that illustrates the truism that almost every aspect of life is at some point debated in the courts, a wealthy couple who subjected teachers to an ‘enduring nightmare’ by bombarding them with ‘relentless’ complaints about their children’s schooling have failed in a £50,000 breach of contract claim.
The parents, who had three children at the private school, had accused staff of failing to respond to justified complaints concerning their offspring and alleged that the school’s head had reneged on an agreement that satisfactory references would be provided to both them and their children following their acrimonious withdrawal from the school.
In a scathing ruling, however, the High Court found that the parents’ conduct had been ‘utterly deplorable’. They had pursued endless complaints against the school and its head, with the mother at one point ‘screaming’ at teachers over what she viewed as her six-year-old daughter’s under-achievement in a spelling test.
The couple had ‘bombarded’ the school with angry letters and emails and the mother had become irate when her son’s geography teacher gave him an A grade for an essay which she felt deserved an A-plus. There had also been an angry scene after the mother complained that her son’s water bottle had been placed too close to other pupils’ muddy boots.
The Court noted that the latter incident was ‘frankly absurd’ and observed: “This was a school and not a food processing plant; it revealed the mother’s loss of perspective and proportion”. Tension between the parents and staff had reached a pitch at a parents evening which had left the teachers present ‘visibly shaken’.
The parents asserted that they were normally concerned parents who simply wished the best for their children, but the Court found that they had behaved in a ‘grandiose’ manner and, in losing all sense of reality, had proceeded on the basis that ‘no-one but their children mattered’.
Whilst acknowledging that the children were ‘delightful’, the Court observed: “The parents of children at fee-paying schools rightly demand the best but schools must be allowed to be schools. Their conduct exceeded the worst excesses of normally concerned parents by a considerable margin. I can well believe that their domineering and demanding conduct became an enduring nightmare for the school.”
Noting that teaching staff already bore heavy responsibilities ‘without having to look over their shoulders for fear of litigious parents’, the Court stated: “The parents, by their deplorable conduct, created a situation whereby there was a complete breakdown of trust between the parents and the school. They made unwarranted requests, endless complaints, and made a thorough nuisance of themselves at the school. This conduct went well beyond the realms of the most zealous – some might say pushy – parents.” By the time the children departed from the school, the parents had faced a stark choice – either to withdraw them or see them expelled.
The parents insisted that the school’s head had dishonoured a pledge to afford both them and their children solid references when he communicated with the principal of another school where the children were bound following their departure. It was submitted that offers of admission to the other school had been withdrawn following a conversation between the two heads.
However, in dismissing the parents’ claim, the Court found that the ‘palpably honest’ head had only agreed to give references for the children, not their parents, and that he had informed his fellow principal of the problems that had been encountered with the couple only when asked about them directly.