Meeting the needs of our customers

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a chief executive of a major UK service company.  In terms of the bottom line there can be few people I’ve ever encountered who adopt a more concentrated and determined focus on making the business ‘hit it’s numbers’. However, as we spoke it became obvious that in order to ‘hit the numbers’ the organisation places service quality and customer experience at the heart of making the business work.

What fascinated – and surprised me – was that I had more in common with this leader of British industry than I might have expected.  There is a tendency amongst those of us who work in the public sector to imagine that we somehow inhabit the higher moral ground than those who are simply motivated by filthy lucre.  Yet time after time, this person challenged my perceptions by continually reflecting upon how the managers and staff in the organisation place the needs of customers at the forefront of their practice.  So much so that the chief executive often ‘cold calls’ on outlets and tests the customer orientation of the team.

The logic behind such practice is very clear – if customers don’t enjoy or appreciate the service they are given then the chances of them spending their money again with that particular service company is very unlikely. In turn the chief executive then asked me whether or not I thought schools were accountable the same manner.  Of course, private schools have a paying relationship with the customer – where custom can be withdrawn – but no such transactional relationship exists in the state sector.

It made me think again about the nature of the relationship between schools and parents in the state sector.  If a parent can’t pay for private education, and cannot move their child to another school due to lack of transport, or the fact that another school is unavailable how does the customer influence the quality of the provision?  Quite simply the only route open to them is to complain if the quality is not to their satisfaction.  Yet in terms of my friend’s company such a limited form of customer feedback would be far too late based upon the fact that many people don’t complain they just take their business elsewhere.

So one could argue that state schools are relatively closed environments in terms of customer accountability. Where else in a citizen’s life – other in than the health service – are a customer’s options so limited? Think of our internet providers; supermarkets; car manufacturers; restaurants; banks; etc. – the common feature is that we  – where, if so inclined, can take our business elsewhere.

But surely a school is accountable through its local education authority and through that to the local council with locally elected members, and finally through inspection bodies such as Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate? Surely that is enough? Once again its worthwhile thinking of private sector examples – most of which have similar accountabilities through shareholders, boards, and audit processes – in addition to the accountability to the customer.  Yet none of them would think that such ‘outward facing’ accountability takes precedence over the needs and preferences of the customer.

It’s at this point in this line of logic that most of us involved in Scottish education come to an abrupt halt – because the next step takes us into unthinkable territory – i.e. some form of direct accountability to the customer. Our first problem lies in the notion of education having ‘customers’ –  it’s an area I’ve explored on numerous occasions and without fail it stimulates intense antagonism from educationalists who see any notion of education being ‘productised’ as a step too far.

However, my fear in the current financial environment is that a local authority’s capacity to act as the prime agency to which schools are accountable is under huge pressure.  Yet we know that headteachers would prefer to retain the status quo in terms of line management accountability – and that there is no certainly appetite for parental governance. So here we are at an impasse – which may not become completely obvious for another couple of years.

On hearing this the chief executive asked whether or not there was any opportunity for the management to opt out – in commercial terms the concept would be akin to a ‘management buy out’ I explained that we have explored such models before but that there had been no appetite from parents for self-management.  But that wasn’t what the chief executive had in mind –  “customers don’t opt out – but managers can” was the response.  And so we explored the notion of how a management team in a school might negotiate a  ‘management buy-out’ from the local authority. The biggest shift in such a model would be that the school would have to set up a board of governance – with a very clear and unambiguous focus on meeting the needs of its customers.

I tried to explain that there were huge obstacles in even contemplating such an idea but the chief executive warmed to the challenge and put it to me that surely the system must provide space for its best managers to operate in a more directly accountable manner with their customers.

We decided to leave it there but the idea has remained with me ever since – gnawing away at my imagination at how such a seemingly crazy idea might actually work.

3 thoughts on “Meeting the needs of our customers

  1. Management buy-out is an interesting concept, Don and one that I am sure some of the parents at Humbie and Saltoun would be interested in for different reasons. I have no problem in being accountable to the clients, but what I am learning increasingly is that clients come with a multitude of viewpoints, opinions and motivations and the practicality of meeting all of these is challenging but not insurmountable. A healthy balance between parental involvement and an accepted trust in the professional integrity of management brings a useful and meaningful partnership. Would a management buy-out be a private school in essence? Would parents from out of catchment have to but in? Lots of interesting questions to be explored here!
    Lindy Lynn

  2. As someone who has worked in schools for a number of years and in recent years has been working elsewhere in the public sector, I have read this article with interest, but also a level of concern.

    It seems there is a worrying trend in the Public Sector of an advocation of what masquerades as ‘independence’ and ‘opting out’ but I fear is far more a cutting adrift from the moorings. The ‘number hitting’ in schools shows itself in terms of budgets being met, and quotas of students treated as though they are simply part of a Totalitarian dystopia of of the vision of Huxley or Orwell.

    What is needed far more are changes of the following:
    there is a worrying trend of money having to be used up by the end of a financial year because ‘otherwise we won’t get it next year.’ Yes schools and other departments should have the freedom to put it aside – but this shouldn’t be about ‘well they could do this if they opted out.’ The change needs to be made with the system as it is.

    I would also argue that league tables should be outlawed -and that newspapers shouldn’t then start compiling their own. Schools in both private and state sector manipulate these, and there are certainly cases where schools woon’t let a child sit an exam because they will ruin the results. In all seriousness, I think this should be against the law.

    What should also be overriden is the current culture where schools are made to feel that they have failed if they exclude a student permanently. This is the power that schools need to be able to do-again, it doesn’t need to opt out to be able to do this, they need to be empowered.

    I fear that with schools opting out, be it under management buyouts or whatever, Education departments would be less strong and not working together as strongly. Yes, there is a need to cut red tape -but this has to be distinguished from cutting adrift. Togther we stand…


  3. Well Don, I feel the article in some ways represents our Victorian system where self managing schools have a school board made up of teachers and parents to whom I, as a principal, report to an an executive officer. The board with some department representation appoints principals who in turn appoints teachers. There is an agreed improvement plan with targets and an annual report which includes a financial statement as a self managing school. I think this in many ways goes to the point of the article although I baulked at the word customers.

    I think it’s important to acknowledge that the school has about 30 – 40% effect on a child’s or young person’s life chances. The other percentages are made up of the person themselves (their attributes and mindedness) and their environment (includes their families). So we must partner with families to help them improve their young person’s life chances.

    That does not mean saying “yes” to every point the family makes (and that is the fear the profession has). It’s about standing up sometimes and saying “no” to parents for your professional knowledge leads you to a different conclusion. The partnership needs to hear this open expression of ideas with justifiable data or research then move forward in hopefully an agreed path (which in some cases means moving to another school for teacher, parent or principal). I know when I express my thoughts many parents (not all) thank me for hearing and then responding in a calm professional manner.

    So partnership is the key which I think is a stronger bond than customer.

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