Parents as Consumers:
A case study of parent satisfaction with the quality of schooling
As education has become more internationalised and increasingly vital to individual and societal advancement, so it has become more important to involve parents in the educational process.
But how do we educationalists view the parents of our students?
Yes they are parents (or perhaps guardians) but they can also be understood to be customers, clients, purchasers, consumers.
This is true whether the school is a non-profit independent school in London, a for-profit international school in Beijing, or a state school in Sydney. The reason being, parents are paying for their child’s educatioon and even if they are not paying directly to the school they are paying indirectly through taxation.
Over recent decades education has become explicitly marketised and therefore it should be no surprise that parents increasingly tend to see themselves as consumers of education. The positive aspect of this is that parents may well get more involved in their child’s educational progress, the downside being that schools become only a few steps removed from operating like your local supermarket – with a supermarket-style attention to product, pricing and promotion.
However, as an educationalist you’ll recognise that this is only part of the picture.
Because not all parents are the same.
Some get more involved in the education of their children than others. Some parents do see themselves as paying clients while others hardly ever bother to concern themselves with the school as community.
Which raises first the question as to what types of parent/consumer are there? And secondly, how satisfied are these parents as consumers of education?
These two questions inform this article.
The research for this article was based on a case study of a well-established public school (grades 1-7) in Gauteng province, South Africa. The school has won several provincial awards for excellence. Its parents are predominantly white, middle-income, and pay yearly school fees of approx. US$1000 per child. The data accumulation method was quantitative supported by written accounts/commentaries acquired from parents during two surveys.
In South Africa, the basic rights and responsibilities of parents and public schools are stipulated by the DoE. Schools have the right to levy fees while parents have the right to enrol their children at any public school and to choose the language of learning and teaching where practicable.
‘Thus, while the school has the right to expect parents to fulfil certain obligations to the child and the school for betterment of education, parents have the right to expect fulfilment of certain performance parameters from the school, such as the expectation that their children will receive quality education and that their well-being on the school premises will be treated as an unqualified priority.’ (p. 618E)
Typology of Parents
The research is based on a theoretical perspective which identifies four types of parent (from Vincent, 1996):
1. Parents as supporters and learners. Support the teachers as the professionals responsible for their child’s education and endorse the teacher’s concerns and approaches. Support through school events and attendance. See themselves as supporting the school as a learning community.
2. Independent parents. Maintain minimum contact with the school. Engage in limited communication. Likely to resort to supplementary classes for their children. Their attention is entirely focused on their own children and their needs. Not part of the school as community.
3. Parents and participants. Are actively involved in school operation including at governance level. Involved in formal parent’s groups, both local and national, which they use to express their concerns and lobby for quality education. Their focus includes but is not limited to their own children; it includes the whole school plus local and national educational issues. Actively involved in the school as a learning community.
4. Parents as consumers. Promote school accountability and high curriculum standards. Their mechanisms for expression are in the exercise of school choice and optimising the legal provisions for open enrolment. They are exclusively concerned with their own child’s educational issues and largely ignore school governance. Not primarily concerned with promoting the school as a learning community.
This typology delineates ideal types and the authors recognise that parents rarely represent a perfect example of any one of them. The characteristics of a particular parent may well overlap with different types.
What Parents are Concerned With
Four major themes emerged from analysing the different parental responses.
1. Levels of parent satisfaction with school culture.
2. Levels of parent satisfaction with communication between home and school.
3. Levels of parent satisfaction with classroom instruction.
4. Levels of parent satisfaction with classroom organisation.
‘The marketized managerial model of education provision engenders the perception of parents as consumers of education. According to this model the educator is seen as the professional and parent as the client. This perception has trained the spotlight on parents’ claims as consumers to quality education as quid pro quo for their initiative. Therefore, parents should be able to see and be aware to their undoubted satisfaction that the quality education sought is in fact delivered.’ (p.. 626)
‘This case study (in which parents participated as direct and indirect consumers of education) highlighted parents’ ability to recognise, delineate and demand satisfaction with the quality of their children’s schooling. Schools are therefore required to recognise that parent satisfaction is a crucial objective to strive for in seeking quality education’ (p. 628)
On the face of it, nothing too radical emerges from this study – it is a fairly straightforward dive into parental satisfaction as apparent in one case study school in South Africa. Indeed, you could quite easily replicate such a study in most any school in any country and probably get similar themes and concerns from parents.
What I find interesting, however, is what is not stated in this article but only assumed.
That is, what do we mean by ‘quality education’?
For me, the whole turn towards parent as consumer in education pushes an agenda which is individualistic not communal. Sure, this research shows some parents do see the school as a community but most don’t. They are only concerned with their child’s progress.
Fair enough, but is that where we need to be taking 21st century education?
Is it only about the individual child’s exam results and not about how that child fits into the communal relationships which define the school culture? In other words, is buying education no different from buying a car, a holiday, a washing machine?
For me it is a whole lot different – though consumer mentality may not always differentiate between the experience of buying schooling and the experience of buying a product – not when both cost money.
Perhaps we’ve spent too much time, energy and ideology on the notion of parents as consumers of education and not enough on the notion of parents as learners. I’d like to see schools of every type devote time explaining to their parents what ‘quality’ education actually means in the 21st century and how it needs to be delivered.
Only then can parents really make informed choices, based not on education for the promotion of the individual but education for the benefit of society, of the whole.
Corinne Meier & Eleanor Lemmer (2019) Parents as consumers: a case study of parent satisfaction with the quality of schooling, Educational Review, 71:5, 617-630
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