Can any UK Boarding school really be ‘all things to all people?’

When writing a previous article, one Headmaster commented 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?

Over the past few months this comment has kept coming back to me and, as someone who has worked in Marketing almost my whole working life, it got me thinking if a Boarding school can buck the fundamentals of marketing,  by trying to appeal to everyone?

Clearly, there is a risk in having a distinctly different positioning in the market from the school down the road, but the danger in trying to ‘match’ the offer  of a neighbouring school is arguably even more dangerous.

The race to compete by offering; Olympic sized swimming pools, running tracks, state of the art ICT facilities & new boarding houses is admirable, but are these really what international parents want?

Also, if a positioning in the market isn’t clear, fee levels becomes 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 arguably a ‘race to the bottom’ as price can never be a defendable positioning for any product or service, long term, unless the fundamental rules of marketing are going to be rewritten?

Increasingly, at UK Education Guide 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’.

Also, as Caroline Nixon, General Secretary of BAISIS (British Association of Independent Schools with International Students) points out:

“UK boarding schools are marketing internationally to parents who literally have the world to choose from and aren’t tied to the UK let alone a particular geographical part of it. 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 personalised 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 10-20 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, but what do school leaders say? We approached a few school leaders who have taken a different path from the norm to get their views:

Brooke House College  established its Football Academy about 10 years ago and has had to build the Academy patiently; “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,” he adds.  He also says that to adopt such a new approach needs whole school support to make it work, as such initiatives impact on all the College’s staff in terms of starting the school day earlier and significant changes to the structure of the curriculum.

Meanwhile, Mark Jeynes, Director of Bishopstrow and Padworth Colleges has his own thoughts.

“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 and the flexibility of the programmes we offer still reflects Fran’s positioning.”

Mark also adds that rather than promoting facilities, both Bishoptrow and Padworth focus on “the outcomes and benefits of studying with us”.  Echoing Mike Oliver’s comments he also stresses that “courage” is important-being brave enough to stand out and offer something different is not easy, but has clear benefits.


Final thoughts to Gareth Collier, Principal at Cardiff 6th Form College;

“UK boarding schools have simply got to move away from their ‘one size fits all’ approach,” he says.

“Schools are scared to stand for something different and don’t want to seem out of place, versus their competitors, but this is quite dishonest, really, as schools do have specialisms and shouldn’t be afraid to state them clearly,” he adds.

“At Cardiff Sixth Form College we are unashamedly an academically focused institution, 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 from us, we think this is an honest, direct approach and allows us to clearly present ourselves in the market and therefore we don’t have to rely on how other’s may interpret our offer, we control the marketing message…”

The whole article can be found here.

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