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Keeping the customers satisfied

David Cockburn concludes his series on the implications of devolved management.

Local authorities have been talking for some time about "partnership" - the buzz word in education The trouble is, like all buzz words, it means all things to all people and tends to be used glibly. The word is even used about the relationship between schools and their parents, which is more akin to a customersupplier relationship.

Most parents in Scotland send their children to the local comprehensive which has an obligation to take them - although they aren't obliged to send their children there. Schools should always remember parents have a choice.

Schools need to become more approachable. For example, parents' nights can be organised to avoid long waits for short interviews, and to provide clearer briefings of children's performances and more concise explanations of expectations. Of course, school prospectuses are better than ever, but we have to continue to improve communications with parents to ensure a greater clarity, accuracy and quality of information.

Schools do not yet have to market themselves, but they have to recognise that competition will inevitably lead to the need for a strategy for survival.

Schools used to cater for the elite few. Standard grade, SCOTVEC modules and Higher Still have changed all that. We live in explicit times and it is essential that schools publish - and are seen to publish - what they intend to do and are doing for all their pupils.

As with any organisation that begins the process of putting customers first, there has to be a shift in focus away from the needs of the system to the needs of pupils and parents.

Certain agreements with unions will have to be renegotiated if we are to meet those needs properly: a large secondary cannot meet the needs of, say, fifth-year parents in one parents' night. If the contract only allows five parents' nights per teacher, then it has to be reviewed.

This shift towards customer care will challenge many of the traditional attitudes and ways in which schools have done things: a strategy for organisational development will be needed. Often young teachers will surprise us with their imaginative and innovative ideas - they need to be given more opportunity.

All this isn't idle conjecture: just as customers have demanded improvements in all sectors so parents will begin to make demands of their schools. It is sensible and good management to begin to prepare for that day now. Customer care is no longer solely the prerogative of the business sector; it is the keynote to our survival.

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