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The Paradox of the Private School Student

The student body in a private school, though the primary target of your attentions and time, contains paradoxically none of your customers.

Private school students are consumers but don't pay for the service they receive.

This is a multi-edged sword: the student is not putting in anything in exchange for the service and yet is the primary channel of communication back to the parent with whom he or she lives. Poor delivery or even failure to spot mild unethical or irresponsible activity on the school's part can lead to the fee-paying parent, seeing the result from the school daily, reacting explosively against the school.

In practice, of course, parents who do react noisily are in a particular group of parents who tend to react noisily to anything anyway. Most students just get on with it, and most parents are happy with the results. But it's worth keeping in mind that this customer/consumer dichotomy is pretty unique to the private education business. An independent school is the only place I can think of where customers pay thousands of pounds for someone else to deliver to their most precious asset - their children - where that asset is not only a living, breathing individual but also is delivered to over very long periods of time, up to 15 years in some cases.

And all with the state offering a highly-funded but free-to-user parallel service in every town in the land.

Quite a challenge.

It's something which seems to elude the awareness of most staff, resulting in assumptions that ‘the school will just keep on going' which ignore the underlying economic relationships. What it means is that if you are the Head, you must always be striving to deliver abundantly on both the macro-level (e.g. exam results) and micro-level (e.g. individual communications).

On a practical level, I always found that I was happiest and most successful as Head when I was in most communication with the students, and by that I mean two-way communication. This channel between me as Head and each individual student was a way of making sure I could directly influence the exchange factor - i.e. I could try to ‘add value’ to each student’s experience in some way, regardless of whatever else was happening.

I found that it was a good idea to have a role in Assemblies. I ran the show as an ‘Master of Ceremonies' for long periods of time, and also gave talks on a wide range of topics including sex education, finances, fiction, ethics, ghost stories, history, comics, politics and Star Wars. I also covered the very important topic of religious education. The object of the exercise here was manifold, and included education, entertainment, engaging the students' attention, suggesting futures and role models, making them happier and connecting students as individuals to the Headship, making them feel at ease and that the school was their school.

I would also try to walk around during lunch breaks or between lessons and randomly engage students in conversation, not in order to 'check on something' or for any particular reason other than to be available and open to student communication. This helped to strengthen the students' bond with the school, with each other, gave a role model for them, and was just in principle a good idea.

Later in my time as Head I also started using daily notices as a way of communicating to the students through a mixture of great quotes, ideas to make them think, or just jokes. The purpose was to show them that the Head was present and interested in them.

The theme of these student communications was the same as much of this hat write-up: granting credit to them. There is no 'kick-back' to this: the more you grant, the better results you get.

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