Make space at the management team table: the changing role of school marketing and admissions

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


There’s a shift underway in our independent schooling environment.

It crept upon us slowly, but lately it has accelerated. Today’s independent school leadership must change the way we manage our marketing and admissions policies. A perfect storm occurs as a result of a combination of unfavourable circumstances. The current perfect storm in independent education in South Africa arises from three trends: an increase in emigration, increased competition and new consumer purchasing behaviours.

An emigration exodus

BusinessTech reported in April 2019 that according to data from Advtech, two out of every 10 students leaving private schools are leaving the country.1 Finweek reported2 that housing sales across the country reinforce this view, and that many of the South Africans leaving our shores are those with tertiary qualifications. The basic cost of emigration from South Africa to Canada, for example, is over R300 000 for a family of four, according to can therefore assume that emigration is the privilege of the middle to upper end of the South African population. According to Finweek, the global market research group New World Wealth estimates that around 300 high-net-worth individuals (those with a net worth above US$1m) emigrated from South Africa every year over the last decade.4 This is the same pool of people who comprise the target market for most independent schools in South Africa. So, the traditional pool of applicants for independent schools in our country has shrunk, and will continue to do so.

An increasingly competitive environment

The growth in independent schools in South Africa started in early 20005 when for-profit private chain schools began to see this sector as a commercial opportunity. In 2010, the market expanded as school groups Curro, Advtech, Reddam, SPARK Schools and the PLG Schools group emerged. Some secured school buy-outs rather than building new schools. Most of these schools charge tuition fees well above public school fees, but lower than the top echelon of non-profit independent schools. The newer players are largely co-educational day schools, based in main centres – predominantly in Gauteng, but rapidly expanding into other provinces. Statistics from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) show that there were 1 584 ordinary independent schools (excluding special schools) in South Africa in 2013.6 In 2019, there are 1 966 schools7 – so in the last six years, we have seen a 24% increase in the number of independent schools, or 64 new schools per year. Yet, the economy’s growth has been relatively stagnant.8 One of the drivers for the growth in independent schools is the fact that the government has not been building enough new schools.9 Another driver is the growing black middle class in South Africa.10 And yet a third is the opportunity to make profit. Research by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE)11 in 2003 proposed that more for-profit schools be built in South Africa.12 However, the current trend appears to be following a far higher fee structure than initially intended in the model, which implied a 30% premium above government schooling. This presents challenges to the existing independent schools at the upper end of the market. The homeschooling sector has also grown,13 as has online schooling,14 but these options have had a less noticeable impact and are alternatives to formal schooling, often including special needs children. In addition to new models of schooling, there is consolidation in the early childhood development (ECD) phase of the market. To secure learners’ enrolment for the entire educational journey as early as possible, independent schools now open admissions to younger children, including infants. It will become increasingly difficult to attract children to pre-primary school for schools without a dedicated playschool (catering to students from birth to approximately two years of age). The multitude of offerings available today provide parents with more choice than ever before. It is therefore critical that an independent school’s marketing and admissions take a strategic focus, clearly positioning the brand and the product offering in the mind of the consumer.

Changing customer purchasing behaviours

Today’s parent is informed, online and expects to be treated like a customer. With the rapid growth of instant, user-friendly, personalised online shopping, entertainment and information channels, the customer of an independent school is very different to 10 years ago. Increasingly, there is a need for differentiation between schools. For schools to attract and retain the right customer, a new way of working is required. This requires marketers to take a completely different approach, using a mix of platforms based on target customer segments, clearly established through independent market research. School marketers can no longer simply transfer existing marketing messages from print onto digital platforms. A practical example is online admissions. If all we have done is taken an existing paper-based approach and moved it online, we have not fully considered customer needs. An example of online purchasing’s golden standard is Amazon. Thus, in the school sector, parents expect a similar user-friendly, secure, paperless experience from start to finish. The digital environment essentially turns our traditional marketing channels such as media, events and websites around 180 degrees, from push to pull, from static to engaging and from shop window to strategic sales tool. Lead management software, search tools, online advertising and inbound marketing are now providing unprecedented access to specific groups of prospective parents.

Traditional roles of marketing and admissions in independent schools

Let’s take a step back into the past to be able to understand the current challenge. School marketing and admissions staff members evolved as administrative functions under the auspices of the school business manager or bursar. In most cases, marketing and admissions functions overlapped some of the time, but operated independently as two separate functions with separate oversight all of the time. The school marketer’s key roles were external communication and promotion of the school, with some internal communications such as the newsletter and yearbook. Branding consisted mostly of corporate identification and managing the look and feel and consistency of the brand. The main sales event was the open day. This was largely a frontoffice role, with the marketer being a visible presence, interacting with press and prospective parents. Admissions staff members were responsible for receiving and processing enquiries for admission, managing payments and database administration. This was mainly a back-office role, with the admissions officer interacting with prospective parents, parents, vendors and service providers on the telephone. Face-to-face interaction with parents would occur once they had completed the application documentation. Some schools combined this role with the school secretary position, turning it into a combined front- and back-office role, but at its core, it was administrative and reactive. Marketing attracted the parents to the school to apply. Admissions then followed the application through to completed enrolment. This system worked in an environment of consistent student applications and a strong pipeline of admissions with few alternatives.

New role of marketing and admissions

Today, the prospective parent ‘shops’ for a school when their child is very young, often before making direct contact with any school. Most of the process happens via online searches and social media, as well as via word of mouth. The customer no longer trusts advertising. They are influenced by other parents and review sites. A parent who is perhaps in your target market as an ideal fit for your school could cross it off their list before you have even had a chance to engage with them. If we consider the marketing and admissions process as a sales funnel – starting from awareness and progressing through interest, consideration, intent to evaluation and a sale – it is evident that the traditional functions start too late in the customer journey of finding a school. These functions must work in sync to attract the ideal customer into the sales funnel in a proactive manner, selecting relevant channels, based on a strategy. This requires market research, digital marketing and the use of technology to segment, target and then manage the enquiries, providing a clear measure of progress. Marketing and admissions must be integral to the overall strategic plan for the school and its performance measures. Since today’s prospective parents have definite expectations, and the marketing and admissions functions are responsible for identifying and satisfying customer needs and trends, school marketers should be involved in strategic decisions, including pricing.

School leadership and marketing and admissions

This discussion will be uncomfortable for most school heads and boards of directors. Marketing has not been given an executive seat in most independent schools. However, one must ask, who is the voice of the prospective customer? When you have strategic discussions about the future, who speaks to market trends and market needs? When you talk about the sales forecast, who talks about the target customer and segmentation of leads? Interestingly, marketing and admissions staff in independent schools may also find this discussion uncomfortable. Many have not been expected to play a strategic part up to this point. They may not have been recruited for a new proactive role and may lack the experience or qualifications. When I talk to marketing and admissions staff, I hear about a lack of capacity. These staff have had an increasing array of demands made on them. The trend is consistent in other countries, too. Rob Norman, from Turnaround Marketing Communications in the US,15 writes that in his experience, every school marketing person he talks to is overwhelmed: As the responsibilities of the MarCom (marketing and communications) department have grown to include not only the traditional work for the departments of admissions, development and alumni relations, but also web site content, blogs, design, multiple social media channels, video and photography, at most schools there has been very little change in the number of people in doing this work.

How to make it work

Three practical steps are recommended for independent school leaders to optimise the school’s marketing effort based on these trends. Every school should have a marketing strategy, even if only a basic outline. This is different from a marketing plan. Plans take us from year to year, whereas a strategy provides the underlying target market choices, competitive positioning and brand messaging based on market research. Part of the reason the marketing and admissions teams are overwhelmed is the inability to prioritise based on a compelling strategy. Everything is important and urgent. Once the board has approved the marketing strategy, this frees up the marketing and admissions team to say yes or no in line with the strategic direction. Structure follows strategy. So, with the first step in place, the structure of the marketing and admissions personnel must be enabled to deliver on the strategy. As mentioned earlier, marketing and admissions need to work together, and under the same leadership. They must work closely with the head of school, due to the strategic nature of this work in the growth and sustainability of the school. These roles should not report to a bursar or business manager for the same reason. Schools are involving marketers in executive level decision-making now and investing in their recruitment and professional development, as can be seen by Norman’s comment: ‘we have seen the level of experience and knowledge of directors of marketing and communications grow tremendously’.16 It bears repeating: today, schools must involve marketers in executive level decision-making as regards professional development. It is clear that marketing and admissions teams require strong technological and digital marketing support – which, in turn, need to form part of the budget. This needs to be planned for. A word of caution here. It may be tempting to take a totally commercial approach, mirroring the business sector. I have witnessed this approach fail. Education marketing – in particular, school marketing – is fundamentally different because of the emotional and personal nature of the work we do. Families entrust the future of their children to our schools. Therefore, let us never forget our mission, values and ethics in the tasks of marketing and admissions.

Buy-in from the top

The leadership of the school is critical to the success of the marketing and admissions experts. This is because the whole school has, for years, seen these roles as administrative. When the head of school places a strategic focus on marketing and admissions, the rest of the leadership, staff and students will adjust their perceptions as well. The implementation of the marketing plan will depend on the whole school, not only the marketing department. This is especially true for the retention of learners. The marketing department cannot operate in a silo. While it may sell the promise to prospective parents, the rest of the school management team must deliver on that promise, so that parents become ambassadors for the school, attracting more admissions and ensuring higher retention. The more the school leadership, including the board, actively encourages and empowers the work of marketing and admissions staff members, the greater the buy-in will be across the school and the parent body to their new roles, and the greater the likelihood of success.

Schools must realise new strategic roles

The independent schooling sector is in the midst of a perfect storm. We can no longer relegate the marketing and admissions roles to the administration and finance departments. These are strategic roles that require dedicated investment, new skills and a fresh approach. It will be uncomfortable during the transition, as change always creates some anxiety. Isn’t it time to put marketing and admissions on the board agenda?

Keryn House owns Houseway Consulting (see:


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  16. Ibid.

Category: Spring 2019

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