Children and parents as customers?


I’ve been reading the Demos paper “Journey to the Interface” which I referred to in the recent leadership dilemma.  It’s a long document but a remarkably easy read and very thought provoking.

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?

9 thoughts on “Children and parents as customers?

  1. Oh my goodness. I’m sorry, Don, but the idea that somehow unknowing, inexperienced, untutored, hormone-ravaged, naive, self-centred, arrogant products of the weak state education of the past twenty years and their children are to be elevated to the status of customers – and the comical fallacy of “the customer is always right” – has me switching between rolling on the floor laughing and smacking myself hard on the forehead in disbelief.

    Ideas like this picked up from the guttering around the edges of education underline the lack of principle and political understanding in this human history in which we are living. Can I spell it out: teachers, like great kings and soldiers, serve the greater “customer” of society itself. What we produce is the society in which we live: we fail when we tolerate liberal stupidities, political correctness and the false sycophantic grovelling to the “customers”; we succeed when the communities in which we live become intrinsically better because perspective, principle and purpose feature in the developed minds of our output.

    The burger flipper is trained in customer service but the business serves its capital investors. Let’s keep our perspectives.

  2. Thanks for capturing so perfectly the concern that many involved in education would share about the concept of treating children and parents as customers. Much more powerful than the simplistic version I came up with in my post.

  3. Sorry, did I overdo it? It took me a while to work out that you don’t use a 4lb club hammer when assembling an Ikea wardrobe, either.

  4. I’m not sure that I like the idea of being a customer. I’d rather be a partner. But maybe this is difficult because of the very different starting points of teacher and parent/child.
    The teachers after all are the trained professionals, many of whom have been in the job for a long time. Parents are very much learning on the job and pass through the education system in a relatively short space of time. I have often found teachers very intolerant of the opinions of non-teachers – this dates way back to before children (was there such a time?) and was instrumental in putting me off teaching as a career. I’ve also found similar attitudes on school boards – suggestions regularly dismissed with “we tried this 10 years ago and it didn’t work” or information simply not imparted – so any sort of partnership working is difficult. However, it certainly looks as though some of this is changing, with things like this blog for instance, and perhaps as new ideas and a new breed of teacher come through partnership working will be more of a reality. But a customer? It just doesn’t sound the right bells for me.

  5. I know what you mean. The traditional conceptualisation of a “customer” appears to reinforce a transactional relationship i.e. “the customer pays the service delivers” – which only serves to promote education a commodity. However, would a service which was committed to serving its “customers” adopt such a resistant attitude as the one you describe in your comment?

    I’d be really interested in what you make of the Demos paper and whether or not that might influence your perception?

  6. Pingback: Don’s Learning Log » Blog Archive » Parents as customers?

  7. Pingback: John Connell » Blog Archive » Who and What do we Serve?

  8. Pingback: Don’s Learning Log » Blog Archive » Parents and Children as Customers - an outward facing public service

  9. As products of capitalist society, we cannot help but think in a customer/client context.

    Since parents are already thinking of themselves as customers, and many behave in that demanding way you see in shops or in companies, it would be better to admit it and then negotiate practical working relationships – terms of agreement.

    In the vacuum, teachers are dealing with parents individually and responding to the more demanding ones while the more modest parents’ children get less attention. Parents meanwhile feel disenfranchised from the school because they do not know what their rights are or what is the appropriate way of dealing with teachers.

    So lets acknowledge the elephant in the room and admit, parents and their childrens are customers and want a decent service. Teachers and heads are service providers and want clear terms of agreement. If this is laid out to parents when their kids start school, they know where they are and what they can ask for.

    Maybe Tescos should give schools advice on how to manage people?!

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