When it comes to education, is the customer really king?

Sally Dicketts CBE is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning

Follow Sally on Twitter @sallydicketts

English and maths GCSE

How many educators think about their students as customers?

If we did, would it change the way we deliver our products and services?

In the last few weeks English and maths have been hitting the headlines again.

A survey of business leaders by the Education and Training Foundation revealed that three-quarters of employers believe action is needed to improve English and maths skills.

Some complained that young recruits use text speak rather than full sentences, others said that poor spelling and communication skills are damaging their business.

Meanwhile a poll of 1,000 parents by ComRes for Teach First and Barclays revealed that parents value maths skills for their children, but struggle themselves. Two in five parents need to use their phone calculator to work out sums and a third feel anxious about supporting their child with homework.

Since September 2013, any young person who fails to get a grade C in GCSE English or maths must continue to study the subject until the age of 18.

As an education provider we want to attract and delight our customers. Yet the reality is that our customers don’t want to re-take failed GCSE English and maths exams.

It begs the question who is the real customer in this scenario – is it the student, the employer or the government?

English and maths are of course essential employment and life skills. Both these surveys reinforce that and we believe it too.

So the issue is less about giving customers what they want and more about giving them what they need for a successful future.

That said, it should prompt schools and colleges to re-think how they deliver learning.

From studies of how we learn we know that repeating bad habits gets the same results.

Our emotions support or sabotage our learning and development, and if a student has struggled with English and maths in the past, continuing in the same vein only reinforces the failure.

If the start of every school year, from age 11, has been characterised by sitting in a classroom and writing about your summer holidays, it’s no surprise that 16-year-olds stop attending English classes when we ask them to do the same thing.

At Activate Learning we have been developing new approaches to English and maths teaching that are more appropriate for the 16-25 year old market. These approaches are less about training for the qualification and more about developing transferrable skills.

Text speak often comes in for criticism, but young people need to understand that different forms of communication are suitable for different audiences. They need to go beyond pidgin English phrases to know how their learning translates to the real world.

Taking the learning outside the classroom, to be delivered by a teacher in a vocational setting, can also help to remove the emotional roadblocks that go up as soon as a student enters a familiar environment.

Empathy is also key, and sometimes the best person to teach a student basic English and maths skills is someone who has struggled themselves, or who at least isn’t a linguistic or mathematical genius. There is strength in shared experiences and in solving the problem together.

If we develop the appropriate techniques, there is no reason why we can’t give the customer what they need, as well as what they want, while also meeting the needs of employers.

2 thoughts on “When it comes to education, is the customer really king?

  1. ‘Pidgin English’ rather than ‘Pigeon English’, surely, unless the Sky Rats have taken up the lingo?

    Actually, text speech is not a pidgin, nor a creole – it is a register of written language containing the features normally associated with oral expression. In addition, many of the features of texting conventions can be found in publications from well over a century ago.

    As a minor stylistic quibble, it might be better to write ‘English and Maths’ rather than ‘English and maths’: although there is quite a bit of argument over whether taught subjects should be capitalized, in this case writing ‘English and maths’ seems to make the latter appear relatively diminutive.


    1. Thanks Bob. You are right – pidgin, not pigeon. Will get that changed.
      We tend to stick with lower case for subject areas here – otherwise Everything Can End Up With Capitals and you lose sight of the proper nouns!
      Thanks for reading and for your response.


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