Same same but differentOverseas-education | Pat Moores 23 Nov 2021
When interviewing for a previous article, one headmaster told me that the best thing that UK boarding schools could do to help make it easier for international families and agents to decide which school was right for each child was to clearly say why their school was different from the one down the road.
Clearly, there is a risk in having a different positioning in the market from the school down the road, but the danger in trying to match the offer of a neighboring school is arguably even more dangerous.
The race to compete by offering, say, Olympic- sized pools, state-of-the-art infocomm technology facilities or new boarding houses is admirable, but are these things really what international parents want?
Also, if a positioning in the market isn't clear, fee levels become a focal point - as do the fees paid to agents. Schools without a clear positioning have to almost exclusively rely on agents for referrals and aggressively market to agents to attract the numbers of students they need to survive, often by offering higher levels of commission.
This is a race to the bottom as price can never be a defendable positioning long term, unless the fundamental rules of marketing are going to be rewritten.
"Increasingly, we are finding that savvy parents are digging deeper and wanting to know about pastoral care, well-being and to get a sense of the overall ethos of the school, which is far more than the sum of its parts and far more than its combined facilities," said UK Education Guide director Rafael Garcia-Krailing.
UK schools need to know they are competing not only among themselves but internationally, said Caroline Nixon, general secretary of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students. "Parents literally have the world to choose from and aren't tied to the UK, let alone a particular geographical part of it," she said.
"So schools do need to think how to position themselves. It is no longer relevant to talk about being the top academic school in a particular county or a foremost school in the north east or south west, for example. This is an opportunity for schools to really think carefully about their ethos and DNA and put these across to an increasingly discerning market."
Pedagogical changes are also coming thick and fast through digital changes. Online and blended learning offer new opportunities and personalized learning is a reality in many US schools through the use of technology.
Also, showing an understanding of how soft skill development will become as, if not more, important than pure academic subject teaching is an important angle for schools to consider. It shows recognition that many, even technically-focused, jobs, will be replaced by robots/AI technology in the next 10 to 20 years, but that soft skills will be of increasing importance to employers as they are harder to automate.
So, there are plenty of angles that schools can adopt to help define their positioning and increasingly there are digital tools being offered to help schools better differentiate themselves, such as Virtual School Experience that allows schools to create personalized microsite experiences for individual parents/pupils.
Said VSE schools director Andrew Elias: "For schools looking to attract international students, it's about how to differentiate in a digital world. And schools need to do it, or get left behind."
Schools also need to make sure they are totally clear on their own differentiating messages before announcing them to the world. Punchy messaging is fine, but meaningless if this messaging is not representative of a clear strategy, commitment to core values and a compelling mission statement.
School leaders who have taken a different path from the norm gave their views on the subject.
Brooke House College has been building its football academy for over 10 years. "Offering something new takes time and courage," says principal Mike Oliver. "Research is key to taking on such a new approach, you have to be sure you have done the research to know that if you stick at it, it will work."
Mark Jeynes, director of Bishopstrow and Padworth Colleges, said that his schools have a different focus. "Bishopstrow was set up to meet a need that founder Fran Henson felt was not being met by other boarding schools - namely that international students were increasingly enrolling in British boarding schools without the necessary preparation both in terms of their English language level and their readiness to be in a boarding community. We still believe this is an important positioning in the market."
Rather than promoting facilities, both Bishoptrow and Padworth focus on "the outcomes and benefits of studying with us," he said.
Gareth Collier, principal at Cardiff Sixth Form College, said: "UK boarding schools have got to move away from their one-size-fits-all approach. Schools are scared to stand for something different and don't want to seem out of place, but this is quite dishonest, really, as schools do have specialities and shouldn't be afraid to state them clearly."
His school is "unashamedly an academically focused institution," he said. "But why is that wrong? It's not all we focus on, of course, but we make a clear statement of intent. Parents are clear what they are getting. We think this is an honest, direct approach and allows us to clearly present ourselves in the market. We don't have to rely on how others may interpret our offer, we control the marketing message."
Pat Moores is the director of UK Education Guide, an independent source of advice and information about UK Education providers.