The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Justin Smith

Into the mix: why do schools need to market themselves?

The mere mention of marketing can arouse cynicism in schools, but perhaps it's time to think differently.

‘It’s all a bit fluffy isn’t it, that marketing lark. Airy fairy stuff, and to be honest I don’t have time for it.’

So said a delegate before walking into my ‘marketing for schools’ workshop a few weeks ago. To her credit, she was an overworked SBM juggling more plates than a circus performer - and no doubt mindful of the chaos she could expect to return to at school. You can’t blame school staff for their suspicion of school marketing (‘just companies getting us to spend money on bus adverts’).

After all, if you’re not measuring it, how can you assign a value to marketing?

People people

There are many definitions of 'marketing' in the context of education, but perhaps my favourite was first given by Davis and Ellison (1997): ‘the means by which the school actively communicates and promotes its purpose, values and products to the pupils, parents, staff and wider community.’

There are two key words here: purpose and values. Do you understand those of your school?

We don’t want our schools to run like corporate businesses. There's always potential for a negative, dismissive response to discussions around core values, purpose, branding, key messages and the like. But people lie at the heart of what we do: we’re about relationships and emotive responses.

Successful organisations with instantly recognisable brands have built a loyal consumer base because they develop long-term, sustainable relationships with their customers. 

 People lie at the heart of what we do: we’re about relationships and emotive responses

Marketing your school so it builds upon your reputation, or begins to modify a damaged reputation, is the most effective way to secure positive and willing engagement with parents, community and potential investors. The only way you can really begin to do that is to understand what you’re about, what makes your school unique – your values and purpose.

Care in the community

It was Theodore Roosevelt who said ‘Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care’. When it comes to defining your marketing strategies and positioning your school, this should sit at the heart of how you think and what you do.

Some of us operate in primary schools in isolated rural communities, others within huge MATs in urban conglomerations, but we share the same commitment to do the best we can for our children. It’s easy to lose sight of this when labouring over strategic approaches to income generation or devising cunning new ways to engage on social media.

Perhaps we should start with another question: does marketing matter? If its purpose is to educate children and young people, does it really matter if a school articulates its purpose and values effectively?

None of us has a crystal ball, we can’t predict the future and we have no idea how education landscape may look in, say, 2030.

Can you really see a situation where our schools, flush with cash and government investment, operate in an uncompetitive, stress-free environment

But over the next decade, can you really see a situation where our schools, flush with cash and government investment, operate in an uncompetitive, stress-free environment?

No, neither can I.

Up to the challenge

Back to the present day - we can’t sit back and go with the flow when:

  • free schools and MATs are competing vigorously for student numbers
  • our budgets are squeezed amid rising costs and less government funding
  • our teachers are leaving the profession citing increasing workloads while our support teams are often first to face the cuts. 

You know all this. What are you doing to face these challenges and move your organisation forwards?

Marketing your school isn’t a single activity or event. It’s a structured and coherent process, backed by market research and underpinned by a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve. Reacting spontaneously can be time-consuming and ineffective, and you’re unlikely to make a successful case for money to support your promotional campaigns if you don’t know what works and why.

What are you doing to face these challenges and move your organisation forwards?

It makes sense to approach marketing holistically, and I often ask schools to do their thinking away from the busy office. Summer holiday time away from school is ideal – use it to unclutter your mind and think differently. Many may be resistant to the concept of marketing but meeting the challenges of competition, recruitment/retention and tighter budgets requires a different mindset.

Work in a teaching school? Read Justin's step-by-step guide to developing a winning marketing strategy, and download his ready-made marketing plan template.

There is a tangible relationship between marketing and the generation of more income for your school. If you’re able to position yourself attractively, and highlight your key messages and values, then you’re more likely to attract new investment. Aligning yourselves with partners and sponsors who share your vision can be extremely beneficial.

Remember, it isn’t always about hard cash and transactional relationships with business. Alliances with strategic partners can bring about mutual benefits.

There is a tangible relationship between marketing and the generation of more income for your school

Your marketing and communications strategy can enable interaction with former students who are only too willing to get involved in school projects, giving their time, and knowledge and sharing their experiences with younger generations.

Get in on the action

With over £300m donated to UK universities last year by former students, there should be no reason for schools to shy away from asking for their share of the pie. Independent schools are very adept and experienced at running alumni legacy campaigns and annual funds. It’s time for the state sector to sharpen their marketing messages to this audience and muscle in on the action. 

It’s time for the state sector to sharpen their marketing messages to this audience and muscle in on the action

At my last school, I established a cricket academy for our Year 7 and Year 8s, funded by former students. The project is attractive to external funders who see the self-funding aspect underpinning future sustainability; Sport England has subsequently pledged funds to support the project. Marketing your ambitions to alumni can kick-start similar projects.

Hopefully I’ve provided enough food for thought to make you pause and rethink your opinion on school marketing.

Oh, and the lady I mentioned at the beginning – well, she’s now a happy marketing convert, and I have no doubt she’ll be putting the finishing touches on her school marketing plan over the summer holiday…

Become an Optimus member

Optimus Education is dedicated to your school's improvement. As an Optimus member, you receive access to our online library of resources, policies and training courses.

For more advice on marketing and brand management in schools, find out what Optimus can offer you.

Find out more

 

Tags: 

Subscribe to Optimus Education's Blog

Join other educators and get the latest Optimus blogs direct to your inbox.
Your data is safe with us: Privacy Policy

Similar Posts

Damian Moore

'One happy family': sharing an emotional vocabulary

At the Holy Family School, designated provision for ASC gives parents and students alike the opportunity to talk emotions. The one group of parents that are likely to visit their children’s secondary school as much as they did their primary are the parents of pupils with SEND. This is the case at...
Read more...
Matthew Burgess

What does Brexit mean for international students?

As the UK prepares to leave the EU and Brexit negotiations continue, Matthew Burgess looks at the impact on international students. Brexit is likely to have multiple effects on those parts of the UK's education sector that welcome students from beyond these shores. What are these effects and why do...
Read more...
Lisa Griffin

MATs Summit 2017: four phases of school improvement

‘School improvement is strongest when schools work together.' Lisa Griffin reports back from the first day of our multi-academy trust event. Sir David Carter sets out his vision for the future of school improvement School improvement was the theme of the day as the third annual MATs Summit kicked...
Read more...