Children as customers?


In my last post I came off the fence and expressed my sympathy for an approach where schools treated parents as customers.  In this post I’d like to look at whether or not such a relationship could be extended to children.

Having undertaken some research into this field I know that this concept has even greater potential to generate controversy and antagonism than the notion of “parents as customers.”

At this point I could reflect upon that research and literature surrounding this concept but I thought it might be better to simplify it (perhaps over-simplify I agree) by repeating the list of things I looked for as a customer from my previous post – and then consider whether they applied to the “child as customer” perspective. Before considering the following list I would ask the reader to switch from their current role, i.e. teacher, parent, etc and think back to when they were a pupil at school and look at the list from that perspective, if you are already a pupil then no need to switch:

  1. fulfil my needs – or at least fulfil what you said you were going to do;
  2. treat me with respect and don’t take me for granted;
  3. try to see my side if we have a disagreement;
  4. respond quickly to my concerns; 
  5. provide value for money;
  6. explain things clearly if there are changes or why my needs might not be able to be met;
  7. keep me regularly informed – don’t talk down to me;
  8. look for new ways of extending and improving your service to anticipate my needs;
  9. offer me choices to meet my needs;
  10. have expertise in your field and make decisions;
  11. seek my opinion and take account of my opinion;
  12. try not to make errors but of you do let me know as soon as possible and admit the mistake;
  13. put yourself in my place and improve services from that perspective

The harsh reality is that very few of the above were fulfilled by the school that I attended. From the entire list the whole place seemed to run around an emphasis on Point 10, i.e. they were good at making decisions, although even then I’m not sure about the level of expertise.

So have things changed significantly in the intervening period? Well they probably have – schools are certainly much better at most of the things on the list but I would argue that the majority haven’t fully been engaged with.  There is still a reticence to move to a customer relationship with children for fear of giving away power.

It might help here to consider something that was a major aspect of the Demos paper, which was the importance in service design of seeing the customer relationship as a journey. Obviously a three year old has limited capacity to act as an informed customer. The education process has a role to shape and care for that individual.  However, as that child progresses through the system the list of things which I’ve provided above starts to become more and more necessary. I would suggest that one of the roles of education is to gradually move towards fulfilling these requirements in line with the development and capacity of the child – to the point where all are integral parts of the way in which they are treated.

Now I know this sounds like cloud cuckoo land but I have been there as a teacher, principal teacher, depute head teacher and head teacher. In my early career I think I would have fulfilled very few of the criteria from my list – however, as I became more experienced – and came under the influence of one of the best depute head teachers I’ve ever seen in the form of Ron McDonald – I began to see that we can treat children as customers and retain respect, order and – if necessary – control.  Looking back I don’t think I ever used the word “customer” – aside from perhaps suggesting that a certain 15 year old was a difficult customer. But the line of travel has been consistent.

For me the entire customer relationship is built around mutual trust and mutual responsibility. The more I treat a child as a valued customer the more respect I gain.  That’s not to say that I let them run all over me – in fact quite the reverse – I set high standards and expect children to uphold these standards. What I would do was explain clearly what these standards were, explain why they were necessary,  and apply these consistently for all children.  But this is no different to the hotel which might ask people to leave the dining room if they were disturbing others; or a doctor who might ask a patient if they want to go to another practice due to their unreasonable behaviour.  Having customers doesn’t mean that you let them bully or assert their personal will – particularly if it runs counter to the needs and wishes of the majority.

I remember once being confronted by a huge and angry father – he pointed at me and said – “you work for me” – I pulled myself up to my full 5’10” and told in him in very unambiguous manner that I did not work for him but that worked for every child that he saw in this school – of which is child was only one! He stormed out of the school – but came back the next day to apologise.

7 thoughts on “Children as customers?

  1. This isn’t a fully developed thought yet!! as I haven’t read the full Demos paper but am wondering whether the following is indeed true… ‘Obviously a three year old has limited capacity to act as an informed customer. The education process has a role to shape and care for that individual. However, as that child progresses through the system the list of things which I’ve provided above starts to become more and more necessary.’
    I would say that in my experience those working with three year olds meet the points on your list very well. I’m wondering if it is as children grow older that we gradually ‘take away the power through fear’?

  2. Hi Don,

    I would ask how comfortable are you with the children seeing themselves as customers?

    I understand that through the journey of education building trust and mutual respect should hopefully allow for a good ‘service’ although I wonder, particularly in todays society, if children start seeing themselves as customers – en masse – what repercussion this would have to education in general?

  3. Krysia

    A great question. I think what I’m driving at here is that we – educators – start to see children as “metaphorical” customers. I agree there is a fundamental problem with the word if the customer is seen to be passive – particularly in the world of education, and that children might just latch onto the idea that they were there only to consume.

    However, I believe there might be a great reward if we could just start to look more at education through children’s eyes. All too often we don’t even consider that perspective and organise schools to ease the bureaucratic burden, “by the teachers for the teachers” (as senior pupil once said to me) – as opposed to organising them around what would make children’s time in school a high quality and rewarding experience.

  4. Don,

    I’m not at all comfortable with the notion of children as customers, so for me, the metaphor is inadequate. I do, however, agree that we would do much to improve our (their) education system if we were to be able to have a better understanding of what their experience actually is.

    Very few of us have this opportunity: student teachers undertake a shadow study in which they follow pupils for a day or two and this, for most, is the closest we get to gaining a good perspective on what a child’s day at school entails. I believe that a much better system would evolve if teachers and their leaders were more “in tune” with what we expect pupils to put up with every day.

    What do I expect such an insight to demand?

    – Better movement arrangements around school
    – Less need to move around school!
    – A place to keep books and things, safely
    – A place to study safely
    – Less tolerance of bullying
    – Proper dealing with bad discipline
    – More direct contact with development mentors: how to grow up
    – Advancement when the pupil is ready

    and probably a thousand other improvements. I hated school (for some of the above reasons) and thirty *cough* years later, I see the same problems with the same causes. Perhaps if we truly understood the experience for the ordinary child (not just the elite that become graduates that all of us teachers in Scotland are), we might begin to be able to provide a better service.

  5. Nick

    I think it’s this kind of “user” (another inadequate word) facing service that we should be seeking to create in our schools. It’s disturbing to refect upon how little schools have changed since you and I were pupils ourselves. If by initiating a debate about parents and children as customers we get more schools to adopt that kind of outward facing perspective, then the controversy and heat that goes along with such a dialogue might just be worthwhile.

  6. You said: “there might be a great reward if we could just start to look more at education through children’s eyes”. I agree! And I’m sure that 100% of other people do too. In fact, I asked my question because of this. You see, I’m not too sure if I (not long ago a student) was seen as a customer by my lecturers. It somehow reminds me of Pink Floyds ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.
    The word partnership has cropped up a few times in your recent conversations, and although it might not be completely equal between teacher and pupil, I feel that I would follow this type of relationship over a customer.
    Although debate is always good 😉

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