The paper’s focus is the development of “customer-centred services”. There a huge range of issues emerging from the paper which would be worthy of further extended discussion but the first and over-riding question is whether or not education is a service which has “customers”?
If you are reading this as a parent you might wonder what on earth I’m on about but in my experience, people involved in education have a real problem with being seen as the providers of a service to customers. So here’s my simplistic interpretation of the problem:
Most teachers see themselves as being involved – to a greater or lesser extent – in a moral activity, whereas customers are seen to be consumers of a commodity – and educators are not comfortable with the idea of education being a commodity.
However, the modern conceptualisation of a public service extends far beyond the notion of service as a commodity but much more about “co-production”:
Many of the new priorities – ‘respect’, an end to ‘binge drinking’, ‘recycling’, ‘improved public health’ – cannot be achieved by a smart government delivery machine; they require changes in behaviour from the public. This means not simply reconsidering how to deliver using public or even private resources, but how to access the ‘free’ resources of public energy, engagement and action. So a child learning is both consuming an education and producing a cohort of lifelong learners. Someone attending a smoking cessation course is both consuming a health service and producing a healthy population. The idea of co-production demands that public servants and politicians focus not only on the internal workings and efficiencies of existing services, but also on how people engage with those services, and how they can be mobilised, coached and encouraged to participate in the ‘common enterprise’ of generating positive outcomes. (Demos 2006)
It is this form of customer facing service that we need to develop in public service education, where we work to improve the outcomes for children by co-producing the service by engaging with children and parents as customers.
It’s in relation to this question that I came across this paper by Sockett 1997 who set out five key challenges facing education if it were to reconfigure itself as customer oriented service:
First, the notion of service. The traditional sense of the teacher is of a person who is legally in authority, but is also an authority, to some degree, on what he or she teaches. In opposition to that notion is that of the teacher as a caring individual, concerned more for the child than the subject. The notion of the child and the parent as customer subsumes those ideas but places both in a formal position of equality. The child and the parent are not there to be managed, but to be served.
Second the notion of the individual. Thinking of a customer obliterates the notion of a common curriculum and educational pathway as currently understood. Curriculum is customized for the child, with the parent. For the rationale of how children currently progress through education, in terms of grade-levels, of subjects to be covered, of assessment is not, I believe, conducive to either relationships of trust, or more importantly, to the child’s moral and educational welfare.
Third, a challenge to ingenuity. Seeing children and parents as customers tests our pedagogical ingenuity and our moral initiative. No longer can we regard Angela and John as interesting curiosities to be researched, or phenomena to be placed in statistical data on delinquency and dropout. It is just such a sense of the child and parent as customer that is creating such educational excitement.
Finally, relative equality. The fact that children and parents are customers does not mean that control is surrendered, any more than it does in any other customer-service provider relationship. Rather, it puts additional power into a moral partnership of teacher, child and parent which has been too long coming.
Sockett suggests that seeing children and parents as customers can serve to sharpen our relationships with them, and in that new relationship begin to create new and more appropriate ways of interacting all with a view to improving the outcomes of the service.
Perhaps Scotland has real opportunity to tie two separate developments together into a coherent and unifying point of focus through co-production of the service between users and professionals? I’m referring here to the Parental Involvement Act and A Curriculum for Excellence where both give the users (children and parents) a key role in shaping the service in collaboration with the professionals.
So are children and parents customers?