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Malia Obama - off to Harvard (White House official photo)

Businesslike roles for applicants' parents

“Michelle and I know that our first job, our first responsibility, is instilling a sense of learning, a sense of a love of learning in our kids. And so there are no shortcuts there; we have to do that job. And we can’t just blame teachers and schools if we’re not instilling that commitment, that dedication to learning, in our kids.” ― Barack Obama, 2011


When it comes to university applications, we quite rightly focus on the pupils who are seeking places - on their abilities, their wishes, the places that want to go, the courses they want to study, and what would make them happy and successful over the long term.

As our children grow older, they are increasingly influenced by people beyond their immediate family. The nature v nurture debate always rages, but there's little doubt that uni application time is an emotional stage for parents, feeling left behind and seeing their loved ones prepare to flee the nest.

Parents are stakeholders in the process too, with their own cares, expectations and contributions they want to make for their children. In business terms, it would be foolish to squander such a resource.

So are there ways we can learn from business and management, recognising and capturing parents' enthusiasm while making the whole thing a little less fraught for them?

Let's borrow first from the public relations industry - the business of building relationships to get things done. Say we're developing a plan of communications to support our client in meeting their goal - in this case, to get that young person a place at university. We would begin by analysing who the stakeholders are, and how they can help or hinder us.

A simple tool for this is the power/interest matrix. If we look at what kind of stakeholders the parents are, we would have to conclude (in most cases) that they were both very powerful and very interested. So far, so obvious: instinct and experience can tell us that much anyway.

But if we're honest, how far do schools act on that understanding?

In the PR business, pretty much everything we planned to do would stem from it. So we would not just keep parents informed through the process, and we would do much more than simply make sure they were satisfied that progress was being made. These stakeholders would be closely involved throughout, possibly with some decision-making power and with their own actions that contributed to achieving the desired result.

So how can parent power be harnessed in a businesslike way? How can they help?


Parents may intend to fund their children going to university to some extent. At the very least, they will be concerned about the cost. As UniBox has already explained, Student Loans are a fantastically cheap – and possibly free – way to borrow money. If you have savings, you'll likely be better off keeping them (and earning interest) while taking out a Student Loan, than using those savings to send a child to university.

Parents should make sure they understand the way degrees are financed. If the parents can reassure themselves that it is affordable and worthwhile, then they can reassure their children too. Like any investor in business, the parents need to be assured that their money will not be wasted, and it's incumbent upon the recipient to make sure it isn't. An investor might expect to have some say in how their money is spent ("I'm not paying for you to go out drinking every night!"). The key thing is for everyone to understand and agree each others' expectations and roles – and the limits of those roles. ("We'll pay for your clothes, and you get a part-time job to cover the cost of partying.")

Make problem people part of the solution

People love to whinge. But people much prefer to be part of a success story. In PR, in human resources, in change management, in business as a whole, you need to understand the factors working against you. If there's a lot of energy being put into resisting you, can it be captured to work in your favour? If people have objections, can you get to the bottom of them, address them and bring those people on-side? If they see something broken, can you get them to help fix it?

If some parents aren't in that most important, high-power/high-interest quadrant on the stakeholder matrix, it's worth considering whether anything could or should be done to get them there.

So if parents are reluctant to support their children in going to university, or don't like what and where their children want to study, or feel that those young people should take another path, give them some way to be a part of their children's success. Remind them of their children's abilities, even if those aren't quite what they imagine them to be. Suggest to them that the university they don't want their child to attend might be worth a visit, just to be sure. Maybe they could help their child draw up a mock personal statement – no strings attached – to see for themselves how animated and capable their children can be.

At the same time, the parents will be refining their views into genuinely useful, actionable contributions. One of the secrets of change management is that, if you open up your plans to consultation, nine times out of 10 you'll get what you want anyway. And the other time, you'll get something better.

Agree a schedule

There's little worse for a teenager than having Mum and Dad shouting up the stairs: “Are you revising?”

It doesn't have to be that way. Parents and children can sit down, even in Year 12, and draw up a schedule for what needs doing and when. That timetable can become more detailed as the process ramps up, with new goals, actions to be carried out and deadlines added. By jointly owning the "business plan", parents and children can keep resentments and disappointments at bay – the clashing of characters turns into a common enterprise. Nagging becomes reminding. Any changes to the timetable need to be negotiated and agreed, which helps things get done.

To be even more businesslike about it, the family could have review meetings, maybe once a week, to look at what's been done and talk about how it could be improved if necessary, and to fix on the actions for the coming week.

Business planning revolves around having achievable goals. It may take some time to fix on the ultimate goal here (“Get into University X on Course Y”), but as with everything complicated, it's always a sequence of simple steps that gets you there. Of course parents always expect their children to do their best, and in business it's common to have some "stretch goals" - areas where you aim for excellence. Think of that first choice university as a "stretch goal".

The parent taxi service

Parents may be temped to see themselves as managers of their aspiring children, when they might be better off acting like mentors. In any case, managers ought to be enablers first and foremost, and disciplinarians only when necessary. The best managers are those who align everything that their team members need to do their jobs effectively, not those who try to do everything themselves.

So parents should focus on creating an environment in which their children can do what they need to succeed.

The “parent taxi” provides a nice metaphor. When ferrying children to universities for fact-finding visits, it's important not to take over. Let the child work out an itinerary for the day, but chip in with suggestions if they've missed anything important. Be like a taxi driver: help make the event happen, and have a cheerful, inquiring conversation about it along the way. Sure, the parent is in the driving seat, but it's the passenger who's really making the journey.

Chasing the school

Every business strategy is going to wrap up with an element of learning: what went wrong, or less well than we had hoped, and how can we do better in future? That can be the hardest part, because nobody likes thinking about their failings.

Teachers may laugh about, and sometimes get frustrated by, parents who badger them to do more for their children. But if a school isn't holding up its end of the bargain, then it needs to accept its shortcomings and deal with them.

The parents' job here is rather like an internal auditor's – to ensure that proper processes are followed and, where necessary, improved. That applies to their children's progress, but also to the school's. If the children's needs aren't being met and their entreaties aren't heard, then parents have the authority to make demands, whether it's making sure that references get written or that mock interviews happen.

If the school, like any business, is serious about continuous improvement then it will welcome those approaches and the lessons they can learn from them.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Mon, 13 Mar 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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