I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with the 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 its numbers". As we spoke, however, 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 among 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 are very slender. The chief executive then asked me whether or not I thought schools were accountable in 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 Of course, private schools have a paying relationship with the customer - where custom can be withdrawn - but no such transactional relationship exists in the state sector.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 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 on 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 and banks - the common feature is that we, if so inclined, can take our business elsewhere.
But surely a school is accountable to 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, it's 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.
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 appetite for parental governance. So here we are at an impasse, which may not become 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 had explored such models before but there had been no appetite from parents for self-management. That wasn't, however, 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 and how such a seemingly crazy idea might actually work.
Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services, Midlothian, and executive director of services for people, East Lothian.