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How was it for you?

Hilary Moriarty asks how can schools really stand out from the competition

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 25, 2016 | School life

Sometimes when a theory is chasing round in your head, evidence to support it just drops in your lap – or, in this particular case, gets handed over in a busy coffee shop, so that you retreat to your place, latte in one hand, unexpected paper in the other. And what was the document? A survey! Of course! A whole page of questions for which boxes could be rapidly ticked – ‘Was the coffee excellent/very good/good/poor?’ – and a half page for the answer to ‘What more could we have done today to make your visit to this coffee shop even better?’

Did I complete the survey and return it? Shamefacedly, no. A hot day in Hong Kong, a busy cafe, many shops awaiting my custom and too little time, all combined against my instinct to answer the questions just because they had been asked. I did feel guilty – I wonder if that’s a girl thing, feeling that if someone has taken the time and trouble to seek your opinion, you actually owe them an answer?

Be that as it may, I had a sneaky reason for not completing the form. It was new, unlooked for and out of the blue evidence to support an evolving impression that now more than ever we are asked to tell the provider of virtually any service our opinion of – well, how it was for us. 

In this particular case, I only bought a coffee! OK, two coffees and a croissant. But really, I came, I bought, I ate and I left, and it was all OK. I could have given happy ticks – ‘Very good’ – to all of the questions, but even thinking that caused me to wonder briefly why I would not go for ‘Excellent’ – hmm? Hmm? I could imagine a recipient of the completed form tearing his hair out and weeping into his coffee beans – ‘What more does she want? What more can we do?’ While I am toddling off to the shops, thinking, ‘It was only a coffee, it wasn’t a six-course banquet!’ Which was half the reason I did not attempt to write the paragraph which might have gone into the personal detail of my visit, over and above the run-of-the-mill tick box questions which anyone could answer. A paragraph forces the writer to think about their own particular experience of whatever event is being explored – it was only coffee! – and honestly, there was nothing to say.

Inspection has given schools an even more urgent reason to consult with both pupils and parents, far more than would have been cast ten years ago

The other half of the reason not to return the form was the serendipitous receipt of the form two days before I was able to waggle it triumphantly on high as I addressed the Australian Boarding Schools’ Association Conference on Australia’s Gold Coast. It was wonderfully apposite evidence of the changed world we all inhabit – yes, even boarding schools. In this brave new world, service providers seek the opinions of those for whom they provide the service. Even schools. Even boarding schools. And they use those opinions to improve the service they offer, to the greater satisfaction of their customers, and presumably an improved bottom line. 

It’s a competitive world, this brave new one. Many providers are offering much the same product as a similar outfit just down the road. If there is a germ of truth in thinking that a coffee bar is a coffee bar – and a school is a school – and there may be very little to choose between them, then actually asking the customer what matters to him, and doing something to improve it, may give you a competitive edge which is the difference between success and failure in a harsh business climate.

Inspection has given schools an even more urgent reason to consult with both pupils and parents, far more than would have been the case 10 years ago. There was a time when schools, particularly independent schools, could be very lordly about whom they would admit and completely convinced that a pupil was fortunate to be within the hallowed walls and ought to be appropriately grateful for the privilege. He or she should then put up and shut up, small fry in the great scheme of things, hardly qualified to judge what day of the week it was, let alone have an opinion worth hearing. There was seldom the remotest doubt about who was in charge, and upon what terms admission had been granted. 

But the times they have been a’changing, and inspection has been a major force in the transformation of independent schools. Inspection scrutinises, compares, asks questions and listens to the answers which will inform its final report. If the inspectors are going to canvas pupils and parents, it’s simple common sense to get ahead of the game and ask your consumers their opinion of the service you provide before the inspectors arrive. Or you crumble because pupil numbers start falling.

Talking to colleagues in Australian boarding schools, I asked how they heard, in particular, ‘Pupil Voice’. Some of the answers were surprising. Mostly, ‘Oh we have a Student Council.’

‘How often do they meet?’ 

‘Once a term.’

‘And what happens?’ 

Guilty smile. ‘Well, not a lot, usually – they always ask for the moon and we have to tell them we can’t afford it!’

‘So is a student ever likely to come to you and say that the food isn’t good enough? And what would you do?’

‘I’d send him to talk to the Food Committee – they meet once a term as well, and they get to talk to the chef, but we tell them they are not to complain – we call it their opportunity to ‘Raise and Praise’, not just grumble.’

‘So what about the kid who really has a problem with the food and may have a problem with the Food Committee as well, because it’s made up of all the confident cool kids and he’s embarrassed. . .’

Rueful smiles. ‘Yeah, that’s possible. . .’

Much of which – I have conflated several conversations in the above – sounds like special pleading for paying no more than lip service to the notion that pupil voice – all of the voices of all of the pupils – really matter. And if committees of any description are just barriers between service providers and the recipients of those services, then they are worse than useless, they are downright dangerous – management relaxes because it trusts the mechanism, pupils may despair because nothing ever happens. Pupil voice may be crying in the wilderness. The Student Council may be the equivalent of a locked room.

In a world where we are asked to tap a button on a standing grid of 4 – ‘Excellent’, ‘Very good’, ‘Good’, ‘Poor’ – just tap the button as you pass, no pens required, when leaving the toilets at a motorway service station, or at the bottom of an escalator referring to your experience of being in an airport transit lounge (it was Iceland), schools are behind the times if they do not engage pupils – and parents? – in the process of improvement. Really engage them. Value their opinions. Act upon them. You might not like what they tell you, but it’s essential you should hear it. Oh, and take action if they are right.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association

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