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Darren's missing chocolate matters

I queued for a hotel lift recently, in the company of a large number of grey-pound coach travellers. They were weary and keen to get to their rooms. The lifts, though, were entirely inadequate for the task and some people waited a very long time. So, in this good hotel - excellent food, friendly staff, nice rooms - what do you think was the main thing these guests were still talking about two days later?

It was a fine example of how easily an excellent organisation can be let down by a small detail. It's an issue that management guru Tom Peters tackles in his 1987 book, Thriving on Chaos (currently in Pan Paperback).

He owned, he tells us, a General Motors pick-up truck.

"Nothing major has gone wrong with it," he writes. "No dropped transmission or oil leaks. In fact it's worse than that. About eight little things have gone wrong."

So far as he's concerned, the truck's basic reliability is entirely undermined by the stream of small problems. "Each time I get in the truck, it's as if a brightly lit map of GM's failure to attend to detail flashes before my eyes. Frankly, in terms of my perceptions, GM would have been better off if the transmission had failed. I would have gotten it fixed immediately, it would have been done with."

Tom's point is that so many businesses are like that - excellence at the heart, compromised by nonsense at the periphery - poor packaging perhaps, or an incompetent help desk. In other words, the quality of what you provide isn't a matter of what you say or think it is. It's what the customer perceives it to be. Schools are no different from businesses in this respect. Their main concern, necessarily, and increasingly, is with the core functions of teaching and learning. As a result, we now have lots of heartening stories of schools where, by intense effort focused at the point where the teacher and the pupil meet, results have improved year on year.

Is that, though, how the customer - parent or child - perceives quality in a school? Certainly the Government thinks it is, which is why we have league tables. Me, though, I'm not so sure. Tom Peters wrote of eight little things that went wrong with his truck, and you could, I believe, put together a similar list of niggles for many schools.

Here are one family's experiences, then - fictional, but only in the sense of being drawn from various sources. They're also compressed in time. But they give the flavour and I think are recognisable.

Monday: Darren goes to get his packed lunch. His chocolate bar has gone.

It's a common occurrence, well known among the parents, who all think they know who does it. The school seems unable to get on top of the problem, which festers on.

Tuesday: Dad snatches a few minutes from work to phone the school about the lunchbox problem, but fails, in the time available, to navigate the automatic phone system. "If you know the extension you require..." He doesn't know, waits patiently through the menu but fails to raise anyone who seems interested.

Wednesday: Gran picks up the lunchbox problem. At school, she queues behind six children who are signing in late, then has trouble bending to the low reception window to speak to the receptionist, who is also fielding phone calls. She is told to take a seat. Several very preoccupied adults hurry by her without a glance.

Thursday: Darren brings home a letter about a school trip that costs nearly pound;200. "Please, Dad. All my lot are going."

Friday: Darren brings a newsletter which celebrates the school's excellent Ofsted report. "This is a very good school."

Yes, I know it's so easy to go on like this. Yes, it's impossible to miss all the pitfalls. Resources are stretched, and the focus has to be in the classroom. We have all, hand on heart, let things slip, upset people, ridden roughshod over concerns, momentarily forgotten that each of our pupils is the whole world to one family. By the same token, though, perhaps we shouldn't complain if judgements are made about us on criteria we haven't thought of and wouldn't have chosen.

And, it has to be said, there really are schools where management, sensitive to small annoyances, and to how things look on the outside, has clearly and visibly tackled each of these issues, and more.

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher who writes widely on education.

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