TESS Article 5 – Managing Parents as Customers

 TES Scotland cover 07 DecemberTES Scotland cover 07 DecemberTES Scotland cover 07 December

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.

PISA – systems CAN make a difference

The PISA results for 15 year olds were released on the 4th December.

If we are really serious about improving the performance of the lowest attaining 20% then we have to take account of some of the findings of this research.

Consider this:

Streaming at an early age tends to increase the impact of socio-economic background on student performance, PISA 2006 indicates. The earlier students were stratified into separate institutions or programmes, the stronger was the impact which the school’s average socio-economic background had on performance.Streaming at an early age tends to increase the impact of socio-economic background on student performance, PISA 2006 indicates. The earlier students were stratified into separate institutions or programmes, the stronger was the impact which the school’s average socio-economic background had on performance.

What emerges from the research is that systems can change and when they do they can have a dramatic effect upon children’s knowledge and skills. So do we have the courage and conviction to really change to meet the needs of all children – or are the forces of inertia which exist within our system too resistant to such change?

I’ll be looking at this research in more detail over the weekend.

Building on what comes before and preparing for what will come after


In was in Elphinstone Primary School this morning and managed to watch all four classes – nursery (3-4 year olds); P1/2 (5-6 year olds); P3-5 (7-9 year olds); and P6/7 (10 -11 year olds) – in that order.

Elphinstone only has 70+ children in the whole school but it enabled me to move up through the entire school in one morning from nursery to P7  in a way I couldn’t manage in a larger school.

What struck me was the importance of teachers knowing what pupils are going to be asked to do as they move up the school and also for teacher to know what the children have done before. Now I know this sounds so obvious but it is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve and is probably one of the main challenges facing a school and a headteacher.  It was fascinating to be able to seee skills such as reading starting in the nursery, e.g “Point to the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence”, to seeing children in P1 starting to build confidently upon the foundation they had built in the year before.

It’s the transition from one teacher to another which inevitably creates a regression in learning until the teacher gets to know the children – so much of that regression can be overcome where the teachers “really” know what came before and what the children will be doing after they leave their responsibity. Back to the idea of collective responsibility.

It just needs one teacher to feel they don’t need to take account of such factors for the whole effectiveness of a school to be compromised.

And I’m not even mentioning the transition here between one sector and another!

Learning or checking?

I was in West Barns Primary School yesterday and was speaking to a P6/7 class. One of the boys asked me if I was an inspector and I asked him why he thought that –  “Well you’re wearing suit and watching what we are doing”, was his logical reply.  Euan had never seen an inspector in the school before.  Yet the notion of the “inspector” in our society seems to be deeply ingrained.

I asked him what he thought an inspector’s job was – “They make sure that we are doing the right things” – he replied.  I suppose he managed to capture the traditional  conception of the inspector’s role. But I wonder if that role might be on the verge of evolving into something quite different? – or at least how we replicate that role within schools and local authorities.

Perhaps we need to imagine a time when we could leave the school to judge if they were doing the “right things”.  Such a model would depend upon trust – but more importantly that the school knew what the right things were and  had the capacity – and the information – to make that judgement for themselves and the capacity to do something about it if they judged a gap.

I found this linked well with a discussion we had today at our 3-18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group about classroom observation where we explored the following: “How do we make sure that classroom observation has a positive impact upon learning and teaching in the school?”

I used my recent post on this issue as a stimulus . What emerged in the course of the discussion was that the output – e.g 75 observations undertaken by management in  a school in a single year, has no correlatiion on the quality of learning and teaching that one might expect to see in that school. Our group – which involved people from all levels in the service agreed that it was more about creating a learning culture or ethos where such observations played a key role in that learning process geared towards improving what we do in the class..

To return to my visit to West Barns I had explored this with the class and it was amazing to listen to how they understood the difference between someone watching and checking and someone watching and learning.

It was a credit to their teacher and their school that they were able to actively engage with a stranger in such discussion at such a level and differentiate between these two alternative dimensions.

I know which dimension I would prefer?

“I’m a parent…..and a customer”


Over the last few weeks I’ve written a number of posts about parents as customers.

So it was great to a very extensive response from Mothersoup

All too often in education the dialogue takes place between the professionals and those whom we serve only play a peripheral role in shaping the future.

MS’s post is well worth read but here are some extracts (I’ve added the bold):

1. Good customer service is genuine – less “false sycophantic grovelling” and more Unconditional Positive Regard. My experience of UPR comes via the work of Carl Rogers who also stressed the value of empathy: making the effort to consider the situation from the other’s point of view. From my point of view this might involve the schools and teachers looking at situations and asking “How might this make parents feel?

2. Someone mentioned the line “The customer is always right”, which does seem to emphasise the image of kow-towing to unreasonable behaviour. Instead, I’d proffer “The customer’s perception is always valid” – which encourages  looking from the customer’s point of view.

3. As a customer, I often have to be managed in order to be served. I’d be happy to have the opportunity to be more managed as a schoolparent – there are times when it would be a great help. I don’t want more power over the teachers (or for them to have more power over me) – a relationship built on power tends to be a relationship in trouble.

I don’t believe any teacher or headteacher would ever think of using the phrase “managing our parents” but I know exactly what she means.

 Go read………………………

A focus on outcomes – and leave the process up to schools and teachers

I’ve been doing some more work on how we might make use of outcome agreements with schools.  I’ve looked at the logic of this in some earlier posts but it’s only by experimenting with actual outcomes that we can start to see whether or not they would be a good idea.

Sometimes it’s only by looking at such possibilities that we can identify weakenesses and opportunities.  Don’t freak out too much as you read these outcomes but the whole idea is that these outcomes would actually free up clusters, schools and teachers to work out how they might go about achieving these outcomes – as opposed to spending all their time filling in forms and plans.

Some of this links back to something I came across in the summer about social return on investment.

The following are possible examples:

Within three years every child (without severe or complex needs) will reach the international literacy, maths and science benchmark levels for 10 year olds and 14 year olds

Every school will be able to demonstrate how they have developed their curriculum to take account of co-creation, personalisation and flexibility.

Every teacher will be able to demonstrate how they have developed their teaching in response to a curriculum for excellence

Every teacher will be able to demonstrate how children received their entitlement to digital access as set out in our Learning and Teaching policy.

Children will report that they experience a smooth transition in terms of learning and teaching from one stage to another throught their school careers.

Within two years every child will have a personal on-line space in which they can keep a progressive record of their achievments and attainment

All schools will be able to accurately forecast pupil attainment on an annual basis.

All schools will be able to measure value added and use this data to formulate future action.

Within three years all pupils will match or exceed their predicted progression levels

90% of children will report that school has a positive impact upon their health.

The number of children with a body mass index above the norm is reduced by 30% over three years.

The number of children participating in regular physical exercise outside school increases by 30%

All children can run continuously for 12 minutes at the age of 10, 12 and 14 years of age.

All children will be able to identify examples of how they make a contribution to their school or community.

All children will be able to provide an example of how they work successfully with others .

All children will be able to provide an example of how they have demonstrated confidence to work independently of others

The crocodile’s ticking clock

My mother was 77 today.  She’s quite a character and I wondered what might be suitable present.  She’s been at me for some time to write a poem about her. I wrote one for my father after he died and in her inimitable fashion she told me that she wanted to hear hers.

So I sat down this morning and the wrote the following.  I’m not claiming anything about its quality but it allowed me to say a few things to her that I’ve probably never said.

We went round to her house this afternoon with the poem but she was in Edinburgh – at the Joan Eardley exhibition as it happened – so we left it for her return with a few other bits and pieces.

My mum was born in Malaya ( as it was then known) in 1930.  She was christened Barrie – in honour of her father’s favourite author J. M. Barrie – of Peter Pan fame. Her father was the manager of a rubber plantation.  She stayed with her parents until she was eight before being sent home to school.  When Malaya fell to the Japanese her father was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in Changi jail.  Her mother got the last overloaded boat out of Singapore. She had to swap ships in Bombay – only for the original boat to be sunk with all lives lost. Neither she nor her husband knew the other was alive for a further two years.

After his release they stayed in Alford, Aberdeenshire where my mother became a nurse and met my father who was a medical student.

They set up a doctor’s surgery from scratch in Portobello, Edinburgh, which went on to become one of the biggest practices in the city. At that time my mother had three of us under 3 in addition to being nurse, receptionist and anything else required.

In the last few years she hasn’t enjoyed good health but always sees others’ problems to be much greater than her own.

On writing the poem I realised that the greatest gift my mother gave me was my sense of optimism. Thanks’

She only sees the light

The Cameron Highlands always sounded so exotic

To be born in the tropics – a colonial mistress

She could have been a proper lady!

A foundation of happiness,

Upon which she built a life,

Proved all too short

And sailing home – alone

She built an imaginary world

Protecting herself by

Always seeing the best

Learning how to sacrifice

Drawing people to her light

Her innocence balanced by her knowing.

She waited for her time

Remembered running on a platform

Holding him in her arms

Feeling his emaciated body

Reunited – a family once more.

Coreen, Alford, Donside

Nursing, dances, army

And somewhere in here a man

A special man

A man who made her whole

Lives and hearts entwined in perfect balance

A wonderful blur

26 Duddingston Crescent, Windyridge

Housewife, receptionist, nurse, mother, lover

Multi-tasking on a grand scale

A Neverland of wondrous memories.

She nurtured her tribe of boys and girl

They grew happy and protected

Yet time took its toll

The crocodile’s ticking clock

Catches us all

Yet the laughter, love and happiness

Drowns out the ticks

From a woman who only sees the light

PIRLS – some observations

It must be just the time of year but a plethora of international acheivement data is being made available in matter of a few weeks.

The most recent of these is the Progress in International Literacy Study 2006 PIRLS you can download the entire report from here but beware it’s 63mb and takes along time to download.

I’ve taken a look specifically at Scotland’s data and here are some of my observations. 

The PIRLS assessment tests children’s reading ability typically at the end of their fourth year of primary schooling, in  Scotland it’s the fifth as we tend to start one year earlier than most other countries.  The average age of Scottish pupils taking the test was 9.9 years of age which was actually younger than the age of children taking the test in most other countries.

The PIRLS average was 500 points and the Scottish score was 527 – 26th place out of 40.  The top three countries were Russia (565), Singapore (564) and Canada, Alberta (560). Scotland’s score was virtually identical to the last time the test was done in 2001 (528) – down 1 point, whereas some countries had changed their systems in response to the 2001 results and made significant progress, e.g  Russia + 37 and Singapore + 30, England had dropped -13 points.

Gender is a significant issue in terms of reading attainment across the world with girls scoring on average 17 points higher than boys, in Scotland girls scored 22 points higher than boys. Yet in Luxembourg the difference is only 3%, whilst a very large country such as the U.S it’s only 10%.  Scotland is also moving in the wrong diraction with the difference increasing by 3% in girls favour, whilst globally the gap has closed by 5%. 

The average class size was 24, Scotland’s was 26, Singapore was 38 and in Russia the average was 22.

There was some very fascinating data presented about the classroom organisation of students. Whole class reading was a feature of 35% of world classrooms whilst only a feature of 6% of Scottish classrooms; whereas only 8% of global classrooms used same- ability groupings, whilst it was a feature of 54% of Scottish classrooms, a figure only surpassed by New Zealand. In the top five countries only 5% of classrooms had same ability groupings.

Parents reading for enjoyment showed Scotland to be in the top 3 countries in the world at 63%.

Pupil’s positive attitude to reading Scotland has fallen  (- 5%) with only 42 % of children being very positive about reading against a global average of 49%.

Scottish pupils reading stories or novels outside school has also dropped – 5% to 35% just above the global average of 32%.

Only 33% of Scottish pupils said they read for fun outside school, the global average being 40% – there appeared quite a significant correlation between those countries who scored high for reading for fun outside school and teading attainmant.

25% of international classrooms have reading taught for more than 6 hours per week.  In Scotland the figure was 12% – a drop of -2% from 2001, whereas most other countries have seen an increase.

56% of international classrooms have reading featuring as a daily activity, in Scotland it’s 44%

Whole class teaching takes up 57% of the week in intenational classrooms – in Scotland it’s 44%

 13% of Scottish children were reported to need “remedial” (sic) instruction in reading, the international  figure was 17%.

Only 6% of Scottish teachers reported that gave the pupils a quiz about reading on a weekly basis, wheras the international figure was 26%.

I’ve picked out the main discrepancies between Scotland and international comparators – I’m convinced there are some important lessons to be taken from this research.