Manage the parents for total well-being

21st December 2007 at 00:00
I believe we should treat parents as customers and that we have an obligation to manage them in order to meet their needs.

Treating parents as customers is no metaphor. We are involved in the delivery of a public service. The notion of service in this sense corresponds to the "obligation" that underpins what it is to be a professional. Of course, the question arising from this analysis is: whom do we actually serve? Is it society, government, children, parents, ourselves or a higher calling of our own choosing?

The reality here is immensely complex, and persuasive cases could be made for every group. But such a question leads us down the wrong road, for trying to define service in terms of who is the "master" risks seeing professional service as being confined within a powersubservience model. Such a perception explains why so many in the teaching profession have real problems with seeing parents as customers.

In recent correspondence with parents and teachers on this matter, it has become apparent that many teachers equate treating parents as customers as giving way to their slightest whim, no matter how unreasonable, as characterised by "the customer is always right". Such a conception reinforces the chilling and daunting prospect of parents forcing their way into classrooms to confront teachers who have not, in their opinion, met their needs as customers. Such a scenario is not an imaginary construct, nor an idle fear - but whatever else it might be, it is not "customer service".

And so it was helpful to receive a parental response that proffered an alternative to "the customer is always right", with "the customer's perception is always valid" - or "see oorsels as ithers see us", as Burns put it. In his unique way, Burns captures the essence of customer service - that is, trying to see things from the customer's point of view. Yet so often in education, we consider situations from our singular perspective, or what might better be described as "inward facing", as opposed to "outward facing".

It is within such an outward-facing service that the idea of managing the parent as a customer comes into its own. Parents have had no training as parents, and certainly not in how they connect with an education system, which can seem unwelcoming, confusing and bureaucratic; they have probably been better prepared to drive their car.

This is the schizophrenic world facing parents who discover that many schools do not like the idea of treating them as customers, yet don't want to manage them for fear of being accused of manipulation. The result is that we circle each other uneasily, hoping to avoid conflict.

Yet I would contend that parents do want to be managed: they don't want to have more power over teachers (nor teachers to have power over them), but they do want a relationship that is built on trust and mutual responsibility.

Being a parent is a journey where they come into contact at infrequent intervals with the people who educate their children. Regardless of policies, plans, mission statements, aims or objectives, it is these "touchpoints" that characterise a school for a parent. Everything we do should, therefore, be underpinned by an obsessive attention to detail. Yet the reality is that we too often leave these touchpoints to chance and fail to manage them properly, thereby leaving our parent body alienated and disaffected.

The interface between education and parents is too important to be left to chance. Where schools accept their responsibility to manage parents as customers, the incredible return and positive impact on the education of children, and the well-being of the community, has to be seen to be believed.

Don Ledingham is head of education in East Lothian Council.

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