The Changing Perception of Value in Schools (Prt 1)

Have you asked yourself why parents are complaining so much about school fees? Why parents that have unflinchingly (or with minimal flinch?) consistently paid obscene amounts of money in fees are raising hell over a shilling here and a shilling there? Are they really counting off the lunches that the child will not take and the physical facilities that they will not be using? Are they really so obtuse that they do not understand that schools have fixed running costs that make sure their children have a school to attend in the future? Have they all, in one fell swoop, lost their means of revenue generation?

More importantly, have the schools figured out yet that it’s a value issue?

Many brands belonging to learning institutions have been some of the most efficiently strong in Kenya for quite some time, and for many schools, this has translated to making this a sellers’ market. What many schools have had to focus on to attract business has been to maintain; already existent track records in exam performance, great facilities for some, and pedigree for others, and parents have been practically beating at their doors. Having long waiting lists to join their schools has been something they have become accustomed to, leading them to develop a certain level of smugness especially when dealing with minor issues like parent complaints, knowing that they were likely to, like in many years before, churn out good outcomes for their parents and thus placate them or remind them why they came in the first place. Parents had, in turn, made peace with the fees they were paying in exchange with the value they were receiving. Until now.

Now, where two or three are gathered via whatsapp, especially for lower grades, parents are assessing, complaining, and in some cases threatening. But, what has changed? The simple absence of physical ‘place’ for the delivery of their services? Is it really that simple?

I suspect that it is the actual injection of the parent into the ‘kitchen’ leaving them with unprecedented access to manner in which the education is provided to their children that is creating the issue. This is not the very best considering that education is a service.

Services are interesting things and when delivered to us, they are, if handled well, able to be slathered with the special sauce of wonder. We tend to judge services as an intangible package, which they are; not a collection of parts, unless they are presented that way. We don’t ask for half a legal representation, half a haircut, or half an education, as the collective outcome is how it is presented to us and how we understand and appreciate it. However, when we are injected into their delivery, there is the danger, and this is what has happened here, of the commoditisation of the offering, making us break it down to its constituent parts and able to judge it, correctly or otherwise, piece for piece; essentially moving it to the ranks of a white good, aka, a loaf of bread.

How did this happen?

The pandemic situation and its reaction happened somewhat instantly; children were in school one day and not in school, by royal decree (I exaggerate), the next. Like many of us, the schools were left flat footed, with obligations and expectations to meet that required them to completely change, in weeks, from a system that has worked for decades.

The problem in many schools, was the reaction. Many of them, realising that they needed to account for some fees at the end of it, quickly put together some semblance of an e-learning program and ensured that students were looped into it and parents paying so as to keep the income coming. This could have worked, had they figured out how to translate their then value through digital media, but due to their haste, only a few institutions were able to do this with a majority playing catch up. The quality of the materials and instruction, which many of the parents, now home, were administering was not up to the standard the parents expected at all, and if the schools admitted it, not up to their normal standards either. The parents, now exhausted, caught between the role of teacher and employee, were then able to, in their quiet moments, assess the quality of the education as well as the nature of involvement truly offered by the school. Based on this, the parents had a mental pricing estimate of the value that they felt the school was providing them, and when the invoice came from the school, they differed.

We have seen several reactions to this in recent weeks, with the most dramatic, in my view, being a school being sued by the parents. Having a collective of clients, because that is what a parent is, sue a school on value is a scenario that makes even we, brand consultants, cringe. To lose the client as an asset and have them as an adversary causes brand damage that is difficult to repair, assuming of course that they will remain as a paying client in the first place.

So, now that the veil is lifted, how should schools deal with this value situation before it escalates?

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