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Reputation, relationships and communication

| September 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

Marketing in UK independent schools

By Cheryl Read

As the number of independent schools rises, and the competition for attracting top-quality students and teachers is heightened, those involved in the governance of schools cannot ignore this reality.

To fulfil the requirements for an MBA degree, my research component was entitled ‘A comparison of the marketing of independent schools in South Africa and the United Kingdom’. I set out to understand how our independent schools are marketing themselves to find out if UK schools faced similar issues. I had the privilege of visiting a few of the top independent schools in the UK, namely Harrow School, Eton College, Marlborough College, Caterham School, Chiswick Grammar School, Cranbrook School, Harrogate Ladies College, Sevenoaks School, Bootham School, Ashville College for Girls, St Albans School for Girls, Hertfordshire and St Albans School for Boys, Hertfordshire. For the purpose of this article, the focus will be mainly on the findings with regard to the UK schools.

Marketing vs PR

Throughout all the interactions that I had with British independent schools, never did I meet with a ‘marketing director’ or a ‘marketing department’. I very quickly learnt to refer to ‘public relations (PR) or communication directors’ or alternatively, ‘business development teams’ or ‘relationship teams’. Although these schools do not refer overtly to marketing, each has a very clear marketing strategy focusing on three areas: relationships, reputation and communication.

“Even before any parent or pupil places a foot on your school grounds, your reputation is your school,” said the PR representative at a top independent boys’ school just outside London. Another elite boys’ boarding school communications director told me that the school’s reputation “was its only marketing tool”. Both respondents went on to say that instead of ploughing money into “gimmicky marketing efforts” their schools fostered strong relationships with alumni as well as their current parent bodies, believing both to be “their strongest marketers”. A co-educational school in Yorkshire stated that it aimed to “walk its talk”. Another school stated that “our examination results and consequent research suggest that the head’s leadership is considered to be important when parents choose a school”. Other criteria noted were sporting results, ‘car park talk’ and discipline management.

External vs internal

My research revealed that independent UK schools believe that external marketing will occur naturally as a result of their excellent internal and interactive marketing. The diagram below clearly explains the three key marketing processes.

The complication in education marketing is that the consumer (the pupils) and the buyer (the parents) are different people. It is vital that a school manages both their consumer’s and buyer’s expectations.

Happy teachers = happy pupils = happy parents = successful school

While this equation might seem simplistic, it is accurate, and all the schools I spoke to in the UK adhered to the following principle: if your teachers feel appreciated, trusted and well respected, they should by default, offer an excellent educational service. As a result, the school’s reputation will automatically be enhanced. In short, a positive focus on staff automatically leads to happy students, which in turn leads to satisfied parents who will become your top marketers.

Admissions vs sales

Independent UK schools emphasised that admissions was not an administrative process, but rather a ‘sales process’ that required key relationship management. As one school stated, “As we aim to create a relationship with our prospective parents, the intuition of the admissions officer is very important.” Each parent who applied for a place for their child was given personal attention. “We aim to ensure that our potential applicants already feel part of our school,” said another school.

From that point on, independent UK schools focus on enhancing that relationship with parents. One school referred to it as a “low volume: high quality” approach. The school believes that this enhances quality applications versus simply driving volumes.

Communication is considered key amongst UK independent schools. A school positioned in Harrogate said, “Our prospective parents want to know that they can contact us easily, we therefore have a dedicated communications officer or key contact person in place.”

Pricing and social media

I found it very interesting that pricing is not part of the marketing strategy with regard to UK independent schools; whereas the South African education market is a lot more price sensitive and schools have tapped into this. A British school said, “Parents already know that private education is not cheap and as a result cost is not a factor when they choose one independent school over another.”

Another interesting discovery was that UK independent schools take social media seriously, aiming to keep up with all the latest trends. Instead of fighting the new communication methods and tools, they use them to stay close to students and parents.

Inundated with applications In closing, it might be tempting to say that independent schools located in the UK face fewer complications than we do in South Africa. They may, for instance, have access to more funding and wealthier parents and alumni, and probably find themselves in a less complicated political environment.

At the end of the day, however, they are inundated with applications that seem to stem directly from the factors mentioned above. Reputation, relationships and communication are vital. Are they getting it right? I would say: absolutely.


1. Kotler, P. and Keller, K. (2008) Marketing Management. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Category: Spring 2012

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