Highlight the customer angle

20th November 2009 at 00:00

Would there be any benefit to be gained from considering the children and young people we teach as our customers? Is it really so far fetched?

What might someone reading this have expected of their teachers when they were at school?:

1. Fulfil my needs - or at least fulfil what you said you were going to do;

2. Treat me with respect and don't take me for granted;

3. Try to see my side if we disagree;

4. Respond quickly to my concerns;

5. Provide value for money;

6. Explain things clearly if there are changes, or my needs might not be met;

7. Keep me regularly informed - don't talk down to me;

8. Look for new ways of extending and improving your service to anticipate my needs;

9. Offer me choices to meet my needs;

10. Have expertise in your field and make decisions;

11. Seek my opinion and take account of it;

12. Try not to make errors but, if you do, let me know as soon as possible and admit it;

13. Put yourself in my place and improve services from that perspective

The harsh reality is that few of the above were fulfilled by the school I attended. From the list, the place seemed to run around an emphasis on point 10, that is, they were good at making decisions although, even then, I'm not sure about the level of expertise.

Schools are better now at most of the things on the list, but I would argue that the majority have not fully been engaged. There is still a reticence to move to a customer relationship with children, for fear of giving away power.

It might help to consider something lying at the heart of good customer- service design, which is to see the customer relationship as a journey. Obviously, a three-year-old has limited capacity to act as an informed customer. The education process has a role to shape and care for that individual. However, as that child progresses through the system, the list of things which I've provided above starts to become more and more necessary.

I know this may sound like cloud cuckoo land, but I have been there as a teacher, principal teacher, depute head and head. In my early career, I think I would have fulfilled few of the criteria on my list. However, as I became more experienced and came under the influence of one of the best depute headteachers I've seen, in the form of Ron McDonald, I began to see that we can treat children as customers and retain respect, order and - where necessary - control. Looking back, I don't think I ever used the word "customer" - aside from perhaps suggesting a certain 15-year-old was a "difficult customer". But the line of travel has been consistent.

For me, the entire customer relationship is built around mutual trust and responsibility. The more I would treat a child as a valued customer, the more respect I would gain. That's not to say that I let them run all over me: quite the reverse - good teachers set high standards and expect children to uphold them. What such teachers do is to explain clearly what these are, explain why they are necessary and apply them consistently.

This is no different from the hotel which might ask people to leave the dining room if they were disturbing others. Having customers doesn't mean you let them bully or assert their personal will, particularly if it runs counter to the needs and wishes of the majority. It means that we set out to meet their legitimate needs.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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