TESS Article 5 – Managing Parents as Customers

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I’ll be submitting this article for publication to TESS later this week. I’m indebted to Mothersoup for contributing her thoughts on this topic. Does it hit the spot?

In a peculiar way there is a possibility that this article may offend, in equal measure, both the teaching profession and the parental body. I make no apologies if this is the case.

I believe we (in education) should treat parents as customers and that we have an obligation to manage parents in order to meet their needs. In what remains of this piece I will endeavour to explain how these two seemingly conflicting concepts actually converge to enhance the service we provide.

For me treating parents as customers is no metaphor. We are involved in the delivery of a public service. The notion of service in this sense corresponds to the “obligation” or “duty” which underpins what it is to be a professional. Of course the question arises from this analysis is whom do we actually serve? – society; government; children; parents; ourselves or a higher calling of our own choosing? The reality here is immensely complex, and persuasive cases could made for every group, but I actually think such a question leads us down the wrong road – for trying to define service in terms of who is the “master” falls into the trap of seeing professional service as being confined within a power/subservience model. Such a perception explains why so many in the teaching profession have real problems with seeing parents as customers.

In recent correspondence with parents and teachers on this matter it has become apparent that many teachers equate treating parents as customers as giving way to their slightest whim, no matter how unreasonable, as characterised by “The customer is always right”. Such a conception reinforces the chilling and daunting prospect of parents forcing their way into classrooms to confront teachers who haven’t, in their opinion, met their needs as customers. Such a scenario is not an imaginary construct, nor an idle fear – but whatever else it might be – it is not “customer service”.

And so it was helpful to receive a parental response, which proffered an alternative to the “customer is always right” with “The customer’s perception is always valid”. Rather than going off on a tangent to explore the psychology of such an approach it might be more helpful to refer to our own Scottish Bard Robbie Burns, who called upon us to “see oorsels as ithers see us”.  In his own unique way Burns captures the essence of customer service, i.e. trying to see things from the customer’s point of view. Yet so often in education we consider situations from our own singular perspective, or what might better be described as “inward facing”, as opposed to “outward facing”.

It is within such an outward facing service that the idea of managing the parent as a customer comes into true effect. For parents have had no training in their role as parents, they have probably been much better prepared to drive their car, than they have been to be a parent, and certainly not a parent who then has  to interface with the education system – which can seem unwelcoming, confusing and bureaucratic. It’s into this schizophrenic world that we then introduce the the fact that many schools don’t like the idea of treating parents as customers, yet don’t want to manage them for fear of accusations of manipulation. The outcome being that we circle each other uneasily hoping that we can avoid conflict.

Yet I would contend that parents do want to be managed – they don’t want to have more power over teachers (nor teachers to have power over them) but they do want a relationship that is built upon trust and mutual responsibility.

Being a parent is a journey, a journey where they come into contact with the people who educate their children at relatively infrequent intervals. Regardless of policies, plans, mission statements, aims or objectives it’s these “touchpoints” or “moments of truth” which really characterise a school for a parent. Everything we do should therefore be underpinned by an obsessive attention to detail. Yet the reality is that we too often leave these touchpoints to chance and fail to manage them properly, thereby alienating and disaffecting some or all of our parent body.

I would argue that the interface between education and parents is far too important to be left to chance. Yet where schools do accept their responsibility to manage their parents as customers the return and positive impact upon the education of children and the well-being of the entire community has to be seen to be believed.

2 thoughts on “TESS Article 5 – Managing Parents as Customers

  1. Don your link to the PISA results was invaluable. I have made a comment to our teachers about the need to prioritise student’s learning the scientific principles that stand behind our inquiry units of study. In fact I have posted a link on my blog that has a video that challenges all teachers to rethink curriculum planning with science in mind titled “shift happens”.

  2. I thoroughly agree with you Don. As a parent of a young person who had additional support needs in a large secondary school (not East Lothian) I met both ‘types’ of staff, those willing to work with parents and those who thought that they knew best. Needless to say the staff that treated us as the ‘customer’i.e. because both parties were working together, got the better results. They got the best from our son, both in exam results and behaviour, and made a huge difference to his self-esteem given that he was in an environment that he found difficult anyway. So whilst ‘customer’ may not be the most desirable of terms for parents and staff it does cover the issue raised.

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