The anguish of admissions

Jules Murray, Training and Development Consultant, Spider on the Wall Ltd.

The anguish of admissions

Her anxiety levels at an all-time high are evidenced in her lack of sleep, the worry lines etched on her face and the way she holds her neck when she talks. She has four children and finds little comfort in any of their 2020 milestones. Tom, just 4 weeks in at Leeds University, experiencing none of the longed-for Fresher fun and games. Denied his first proper taste of independence and freedom, the time to blow off steam, and learn more about his course, campus, and clubs. Now confined to a cell-size room, no face-to-face interaction just sporadic online lectures.

Tom’s twin brother, Jack, denied his 6th form leaving parties. His travelling gap year now a pile of unthumbed Lonely Planet guides. The cruel chants of ‘You didn’t earn those A grades – you were given them!” Jack now sleepwalking his way through the endless days desperately searching for where he fits in.

Harriet, 13. Diagnosed dyspraxia, attending the prestigious, international school. What of her continuation of learning if campuses must close again? How will this impact the school fees? What provision will be provided if she is to learn remotely and what of the online safeguarding procedures?

Lastly, there’s little Poppy, so desperate to catch her siblings up in every aspect of her life and now contained and confused and directed daily to behave against her natural tactile instincts. To obey the endless handwashing and follow the arrows on the floor which mark the way – the safe way! Her childhood slipping away this year along with her zest for team sports, girlie hugs, and sociable impact.

What lessons can we learn from this parent’s anguish?

Admission’s Managers it is time to look through a new lens at your value proposition and your customer journey map and adapt it: to give parents the confidence they crave in your safeguarding ability, to show clarity and efficiency in your communications, and to demonstrate understanding and empathy to parents’ individual, situational needs.

It is no longer enough to respond to an email enquiry with a generic, automated template which lists the necessary documents which must be submitted, urgently, attested, and in triplicate! You must extend a deeper level of empathy and understanding to address the emotional needs of the parent and guide them through, with reassurance and virtual hand-holding every step of the way. Addressing the parent’s anxiety about the disruption to their child’s education and the on-campus safety procedures, and having clear responses and evidence to show them, is of paramount importance if you are to maintain their loyalty.

It is time to focus on the extraordinary customer service elements of your school’s offerings and ensure those parent relationships are nurtured like never before. Going the extra mile to maximise the (non) touchpoints of every customer journey is now an essential part of your school experience.

A smile behind a face mask is still a smile in the eyes. A warm and welcome greeting without a handshake is still a warm and welcome greeting with open body language. An instruction to ‘follow the arrows on the floor’ can be delivered in the tone of a friendly, reassuring guide.

How far will your school go to leave no stone unturned? To enhance your school’s ability to maximise enrolment opportunities. A family’s decision on which school to choose will most definitely be weighted by the emotional and personal impact of the encounters and the memories that you leave them.

Join Jules on 19 November for her webinar, School Admissions: Making a performance of it. LEARN MORE


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear what you have to say.



Jules Murray is greatly in demand for her experience in dramatically enhancing a school’s ability to maximise their enrolment opportunities. She has a proven track record of making an immediate impact on schools’ recruitment numbers. She provides valuable insights into 2020 challenges, she advises on simple practical, strategies designed to improve the Customer Journey and ultimately maximise new student recruitment. The result of which is seen in greatly improved conversion ratios and enhanced and empowered recruitment performance.

Jules Murray is a global training and development consultant. She is greatly in demand for her experience in dramatically enhancing a school’s ability to maximise enrolment opportunities.

Learn more about Spider on the Wall

Connect with Jules on LinkedIn: LEARN MORE


Shaping Your Appeal: Brand Identity

Ben Weston-Conway
Global Marketing Manager, Interactive Schools


Shaping Your Appeal:
Brand Identity


Brand is the most misunderstood element of modern marketing. While many organisations can boast a harmonious colour palette and fancy logo, few are able to effectively define and communicate their core values in a way that ensures a meaningful connection with their audiences.


Take a moment to think about all the schools you’ve ever worked in. They’re all unique, right? But it’s incredibly likely those schools marketed themselves using the same messages: educating the whole child, stimulating intellectual curiosity and developing a global perspective.


Sadly, many school marketers excuse themselves from developing a unique and emotive brand identity because of a similarity in product offer. Independent schools usually offer variations on a theme of three main objectives: fantastic academic outcomes, great pastoral care, and an exciting extra-curricular offer. However it’s this very fact that requires schools to craft a brand narrative that transcends aims and goals, and instead focuses on unique, intangible qualities.


Some Headteachers would refute the fact that their school’s brand isn’t strongly established with the argument “but everybody knows about us and we’re over-subscribed every year”. While this may be true, complacency always leads to stagnation and disregarding the need for an identity that looks beyond enrolment numbers creates a huge opportunity for your competitors to develop a superior brand proposition.


Understand your market

When thinking about your brand, an understanding of audiences is critical – only then can you craft a narrative that resonates with their values. Are your parents aspirational, eager for their child to reach the top? Are they sending their children to you because generations of their family have been educated at the school? Do you focus on building resilience and instilling a sense of adventure that appeals to them? Or is it simpler than that; because you’re located on the daily commute or have a great arts programme and their child loves drama?


You might not know the answer to these questions but getting hold of the data will be helpful as you start to determine what you stand for. This will provide structure for your school’s strategic vision and ensures your brand identity withstands the test of time.


Get Real

Independent Schools are exclusive… there, we said it! Whilst many of your schools will have life-changing bursary programmes and inspiring cross-sector partnerships, which should be applauded and celebrated, the reality is that independent schools offer a superior product that is desired by many and available to only a few. This is the hallmark of luxury, and this should be reflected in the brand experience you offer. From the moment prospective families enquire, independent schools must deliver an exceptional, coherent brand experience.


While academic results and university destinations might have some influence on a prospective family’s decision, history tells us that people buy brands because of the emotional connection they feel to them. Why else would parents pay for something that they can get for free if the end product – an education – is the same? We all know it’s not quite that simple, but when you strip it down to the bare bones, parents are paying for a premium product and service, like shopping at Waitrose or flying business class.


While some families might have been educated privately for generations and see it as ‘just the done thing’, many parents will be scrimping and saving all the spare cash they have in order to give their children the very best start in life. Both, rightly, expect to be treated as a valued customer.


Live and breathe it

Now that we’ve determined that brand is really about values and purpose, start to think about how to bring it to life. This needs to be driven by the Head and fed down to your teaching staff. The marketing team can help to shape messaging and implementation, but it’s teachers who are best placed to champion exciting initiatives for your school community.


Once those initiatives start to chime with your audiences’ values, then you can be confident of enhanced brand affinity, a rising reputation and the admissions email pinging – and that’s exactly where you want to be!



What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.



Ben Weston-Conway is a CIM qualified marketer and the Global Marketing Manager for Interactive Schools.


@intSchools is a global creative marketing & communications agency #InspiringSchools – delivering measurable stakeholder engagement & brand stories for the world’s leading schools.

Interactive Schools is an established and well-respected global company, with a start-up culture. Always innovating new (and better) ways to improve school communications – we incubate new tech ideas that actually makes a difference to schools.

Interactive Schools believe that every school is unique, and want to help tell their #SchoolStories. Interactive Schools differentiate, by creating bespoke, immersive & Beautiful #SchoolWebsites, Creative #SchoolMarketing, Engaged #SocialMedia and Effective #ParentComms.



The Power of Personal Profile

Ben Weston-Conway
Global Marketing Manager, Interactive Schools




Thought Leadership

Thought leadership has become a pillar of almost every organisation’s communications strategy. As marketing paradigms shift from an outbound (disrupting prospects through advertising) to inbound approach (nurturing audiences by building value and emotional connections), the need to educate and inspire stakeholders is critical for developing customer relationships, building brand equity and generating demand.


Whilst companies in many industries struggle to find credible senior staff to engage in public-facing activities, schools are fortunate to be littered with experienced, engaged leaders who have a real understanding of the challenges facing young people and the education sector as a whole.


A Symbiotic Relationship

There’s a symbiotic relationship between a school and its Head, as both rely on each other to increase brand awareness and enhance reputation. The school relies heavily on the visibility, passion and drive of its leader, but you will benefit from the reputation of your school to give your opinions credibility – especially when engaging with the media. When you consider that up to 70% of people attribute the reputation of an organisation to its leader, this can start to feel like a lot of pressure.


In the independent education sector, I would argue the figure is much higher; there’s a reason that prospective families sprint down the corridors in time for your open day speech and the most popular page on 99% of school websites is the Head’s welcome! But how do you start to build a thought leadership profile that works for you and your school?


Firstly, it’s important to think about what your audiences are looking for. You might have a PhD in biochemistry, but it’s highly unlikely that prospective parents will be too interested in reading your enzymology thesis. However, they could be concerned about the rise of influencer culture on their children’s mental health because it’s relevant to them and shows that you think outside the box. Perhaps your skills lie in curriculum design or pedagogical innovation, which might lead you to talk about embedding technology into the classroom or scrutinising the role of examinations.


In short, you need to find your niche. You don’t want to become the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ who finds a way to spin everything happening in the world to a promotional gig for your school. That’s not authentic and audiences will see right through it, so find an area that you can speak about with authority and make it your own.


Your school must be able to benefit from your specialisms and interests too otherwise your burgeoning profile may start to seem like a vanity project, so considering what’s in their interests is vital. For example, you might’ve spent your life working in girls’ day schools and have developed a real affinity for single-sex education and the importance of children going home to their parents at 4pm, but if you’re now leading a co-ed boarding school then continuing to champion single-sex classrooms isn’t going to do your school any favours.


It’s unlikely that you’re completely against co-ed boarding or you wouldn’t have taken the job, but you’re likely to have some biases that are difficult to shift. Not only will this make your content inauthentic it might also make you feel uncomfortable, which is likely to make you resent engaging in thought leadership activity in the future. This is why finding and honing your niche is key, as it provides parameters to what topics you will and won’t discuss (which might upset your comms team, but hold firm!), and allows you to confidently employ your expertise within the context of your own school.


Choose Your Channel

Having topics you want to shout about is just the first step, finding appropriate outlets ensures that your time, energy and, for some of you, sanity aren’t wasted! This is where you have to take control. A good comms team should present their ideas to you in the early days, this will help you to know their strength and for them to understand how you work and what will/won’t interest you. They’ll undoubtedly tell you writing an article for the school blog or recording a video interview is the best way to go, but there are three things to consider before deciding on an outlet:


  • Who are you communicating with?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • How comfortable do you feel?


Whilst the first two questions might appear obvious, our experience tells us that schools often make a real mess of these decisions. Whilst convention says that ‘videos belong on YouTube’ or ‘articles live in blogs’, this might not necessarily be the place where your desired audience is spending their time and could result in the content you’ve created being wasted and lost.


Your marketing and communications team should know who the audience on each channel is (if they don’t, then you have a problem that should be looked at – pronto!), so take their views into account, but remember that your name will be associated with this work for a long time. This is exactly why you have to be comfortable with your content, where it’s being shared and in what form. You have to really own thought leadership activity. You’ll be constantly surprised at how often and for how long people will discuss your articles with you, so scrutinise the pros and cons of each channel prior to distribution and ensure that what you’re discussing accurately reflects your own views.


Meaningful Impact

Although there are many variables to consider when engaging in thought leadership activity, it has the potential to have a huge impact on your school. Not only can it help to drive admissions demand, but it creates excitement in your work and enhances brand affinity. Your current parents know their children are in safe hands, staff feel like the school is going places and your alumni feel a sense of pride in the school that was once theirs.


That sounds like a pretty good impact to me.



What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.



Ben Weston-Conway is a CIM qualified marketer and the Global Marketing Manager for Interactive Schools.


@intSchools is a global creative marketing & communications agency #InspiringSchools – delivering measurable stakeholder engagement & brand stories for the world’s leading schools.

Interactive Schools is an established and well-respected global company, with a start-up culture. Always innovating new (and better) ways to improve school communications – we incubate new tech ideas that actually makes a difference to schools.

Interactive Schools believe that every school is unique, and want to help tell their #SchoolStories. Interactive Schools differentiate, by creating bespoke, immersive & Beautiful #SchoolWebsites, Creative #SchoolMarketing, Engaged #SocialMedia and Effective #ParentComms.


ECIS MEMBER SCHOOL IMAGE: International School of Düsseldorf

The Parent Expectations of a New Normal in Admissions


The challenge globally 


Schools internationally have seen significant changes as a result of COVID-19’s effect on families around the world.


Firstly, the switch to online learning and virtual engagement within a school’s existing community was the primary concern, but then schools realised that all their other processes had to change to fit in with their aims of student recruitment. Their other processes needed to be modernised to better support families responding virtually or remotely.


What are parents expecting next from a school? How does it give schools a competitive edge?


Manual admissions processes are very reliant on being responsive to the enquiries and applications that come in. Qualifying and verifying the validity of each, only to then ask parents to complete the next set of instructions and return them, typically before a deadline. In these cases, data needs to be processed, responses need to be verified and then sent to the parents. The pace of the admissions process is very reliant on the time between email exchanges, with data entry in between. Therefore engagement with parents is very limited and the time spent dealing with parents is limited to completing administrative steps for the majority of registrants. For some admissions teams, this is the status quo and it is a reactive workflow between them and the parents.


Where does engagement take place? When do meaningful discussions happen?


School visits were the norm and Open Days were a sacred event in a school’s calendar. Typically they were in a similar format every year to meet the school’s aims and objectives in engaging with prospective parents. They responded with the switch to virtual tours and making these events a virtual “experience” for families. We have heard and seen a number of exciting and fantastic developments on the traditional formula.


However, these interactions are still limited to only those that are able to book on for some form of tour (in person, virtual or a blend). So if a school is not able to support their processes with the usual ways of creating parent engagement and effective customer service then their recruitment is likely going to be affected.


Data, Planning and the New Expectations


So what are some schools doing differently?


Some of the recent changes we have seen:


  • International schools have had to manage the difficulties of forecasting during COVID-19 this academic year. To deal with this a number of schools took a more empathetic and parent-centric approach by using an “unsure” response in their re-enrolment forms. They could then go on to ask parents for an approximate timeline. This already can mean such a big deal to a parent. Offering some flexibility while also gathering all the necessary information and approximate timings was able to provide some clarity, as opposed to only having a binary yes or no response.


  • At the American International School of Bucharest, they found that being aware of their parent’s situations and keeping in touch with them regularly was key to the process. This then gave them the ability to have as much necessary information as possible to gauge and report often on with a range of scenarios from a minimum, to a medium and a maximum.


  • The team at Kingston Grammar School, in the UK, found that the switch to an online admissions system allowed the skill-set of the admissions team to evolve based on how they are responding to the situation to suit the new norm. This could be being a ‘producer’ of school marketing content, or in creating engaging family experiences, such as a virtual school fair with live videos, recorded talks and students participating in a virtual scavenger hunt with sticker books posted in advance to their home addresses.


  • The team at Lincoln Community School, for example, used feedback surveys to help steer improvements in their online learning for their current families. The benefit being net improvements to their distance learning format but also to parents allowing them to be engaged stakeholders in the advancement of the school’s processes. This will also set the expectations for any future changes and demonstrate credibility that the school can meet the next challenges


  • Another example is the team at the American Embassy School, of New Delhi, collecting Net Promoter Scores, measuring engagement within their own school community. While this particular case was not implemented as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, it also allows the team to track engagement within their community for the future.


  • Some schools have simply shifted their tours to personal Zoom discussions that can be booked much more frequently, with a colleague walking around the school on a virtual tour.


A New Normal


Schools are already recreating and modernising their admissions process online, enabling them to gather more data and engage in new ways. Data entry, document submissions and key steps are being completed by parents allowing for the customer to take part fully with the process, be nurtured through their own ‘personalised admissions portal’ and complete items at their own pace. Admissions teams are then reallocating time to pursue personal interactions with parents, have oversight of their entire admissions pipeline and be able to proactively identify ways to improve student recruitment. Monitoring the relationship with parents and having data supports a school in monitoring engagement.


Schools have then seen other positive changes to the parent experience, that are not as obvious.


There is no post or ‘email processing lag’ with online processes, meaning that admissions teams are setting better expectations and are in a stronger position to say the responsibility is on the parent’s to submit documents/forms by the deadline. It removes the age-old excuse of blaming the ’UK Royal Mail’, or “It’s in the post…” and how does a dog eat an online form and prevent it from being submitted…


Ultimately parents are responsible for being able to complete steps at a time of their choosing and their next steps or forms can be waiting for them in their parent account well in advance of the deadline. Meanwhile, communication to parents is centralised onto a student’s profile, providing further layers of support to busy admissions teams.


Schools have also seen that the parent journey has shifted. With parents accessing their own admissions dashboard they can work autonomously. They are not waiting for someone to process their data or respond to their email confirming receipt. There is a green tick showing completion, and from our own experience in admissions, generally, the majority of parents just want to get the necessary steps completed. Schools are encouraging them to complete the steps proactively. Making it easy and most importantly, making the process transparent and digestible for them. Which has streamlined their experience.


Parents recognise that they are responsible, and school teams support them with any help they need, communicate with them and provide ways for parents to engage with their prospective school in an organic way. This is where the responses are able to be more meaningful and better connections are made with prospective parents in the admissions process, leading to a potential increase in conversion and reconversion.


Therefore, setting new expectations and creating new processes during the admissions journey reflects positively on a school. Where parents are given even more confidence that the school can respond to changes beyond their control. Meanwhile, schools are gathering any and all data they need to prepare for their ‘Plan A, B to Z’ action plans as they work towards their own admissions timeframes. Responding with agility requires planning and for effective planning, you need good data and an effective, transparent communication strategy.


With those you can identify trends, keep abreast of changes and react accordingly in the face of future uncertainty and parents will engage positively and be reassured that the school can respond with aplomb.


The Future


So school processes are already different from last year’s. In the future, how are admissions teams going to respond to the next set of challenges affecting us?


COVID-19 has been such a dynamic situation with schools and families being affected internationally in so many ways. However, from an admissions point of view, this is probably one of the most exciting times for admissions teams as there is precedence to show that creative new ideas in the admissions process are having tangible positive results on student recruitment and in engaging with prospective parents.


What schools are doing is demonstrating their aims of advancement for the betterment of their community, into and throughout their time in the school. Taking time establishing your parent’s expectations of your admissions process and reviewing methods of managing relationships, with data to support those decisions. With adequate planning and the relevant information, this is an excellent opportunity to reimagine processes and focus on what is important: the parent’s customer journey. Improving on these processes allows your team to respond back to any new challenges that present themselves in the future.

Featured image (OpenApply case study/ECIS Member School): Istanbul International Community School


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.



From MacKenzie Hovermale, OpenApply Director

In 2013, we launched OpenApply to support international schools in their transition from paper to provide an integrated, seamless online admissions & enrolment system.

Our mission was two-fold: firstly to build out a comprehensive, flexible and feature-rich system extending our experience in serving over a thousand international schools with ManageBac, and secondly to fill a professional development gap by publishing the International Admissions Bulletin and organising conferences around the world for admissions officers to share best practices and enhance collaboration.

This approach of Systems + Professional Development best reflects our long-term commitment to serving the needs of international schools.


The key to attracting and retaining students

Esther Clark, Director of Marketing, Wey Education plc.

Attracting and retaining students and of course teachers, is the natural goal of all schools. However, for international schools the fluid nature of their audience means that achieving this can be a constant challenge. So, what are some schools doing to make their offering more attractive to new families and convert their student population from fluid to solid? Esther Clark, Director of Marketing at Wey Education, provider of the online school InterHigh, explains how Wey Education works in partnership with schools to help them achieve their goals.


Mobility, rather than stability, is often the norm for students in international schools. Generally linked to their parents’ careers, a proportion of the school population does not remain long enough to benefit from an uninterrupted educational experience. Naturally most schools believe this is beyond their control but for the schools we work with, this doesn’t have to be the case.


InterHigh is the UK’s leading online school. Since it opened in 2005, we have taught more than 10,000 pupils, currently with around 3,000 pupils in the school community. Between 40-60 per cent of pupils are ‘international’ whether that means they study outside of UK or are non-UK citizens resident in the UK.

Lessons are delivered in live, interactive classrooms by professionally qualified British teachers. We offer a full British curriculum; as pupils move through the school, they can study a full range of IGCSE and A Level courses. In 2018, our fully qualified, subject specialist teachers helped our learners achieve a 98 per cent pass rate at English GCSE and 73% achieving levels 9-4 across all subjects.



What makes us different from traditional schools is that our teaching is flexible, accessible and online. Some students are full time while others are only with us for a few months or join us just to study one specific subject – which brings me to the explanation of how working with us benefits international schools.


Attracting new students

By their very nature, families looking for the best school for their children come with certain criteria: a British curriculum delivered by British teachers, with the highest quality standards and pass marks in a broad range of subjects.


It is this last requirement, namely the broad range of subjects, that many international schools may struggle to support. Children coming from overseas to a new school often come with an expectation to continue to study subjects from their previous school. This could include IGCSE curriculum areas such as accounting or any number of languages from Arabic to Malay. The flexibility of InterHigh means that if an international school doesn’t have a teacher in place to offer any area of the curriculum, the students may be able to ‘attend’ InterHigh remotely, just for this subject. Offering this flexibility and breadth of subjects is a highly attractive option to many families. By working with us it enables the school to show that it can off a broader range of subjects. InterHigh, in essence, becomes a powerful extension to a school and their learning offer.


The other issue that international schools face is the natural flow of students arriving and leaving each year, but this doesn’t have to be the case.


Let’s take student and table tennis champion Anna Hursey as an example. As the youngest athlete in the history of any sport to compete in the Commonwealth Games, Anna’s training schedule makes her education increasingly complex. Anna used to study at Cardiff High School in Wales, a mixed comprehensive school in the UK. It was a brilliant school and she did well, but as the pressure of her training impacted on her schooling, this started to impact her academically. She therefore left her school to join InterHigh which allowed her to continue with her education whilst developing her table tennis career. Wherever she was in the world, she was able to progress with her education alongside her training. However, this didn’t have to be a permanent shift. An alternative option for Anna would have been to stay at Cardiff High School when she was in the UK and simply continue her GCSE studies with InterHigh when she was training overseas and needed that level of flexibility.


“I graduated InterHigh this past summer, getting A-levels in German, French, Literature and English. I am so amazed with how everything has turned out, but I am also very, very happy. My 14-year-old self would not recognise me today. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for home-schooling me and to InterHigh, for showing me what a gift education is and believing in me. Thank you InterHigh for changing my life.” Amy Lally, alumni, InterHigh


Another example is year 10 French student Adrien. Because of his father’s business, and his mother working between Australia and France, Adrien constantly moves between the two countries. Despite being happy with the education he could receive in Sydney the same couldn’t be said when he returned to spend time in France. Living right near the French Swiss border, the best teachers often get jobs in the Swiss schools which pay two to three times higher salaries. Therefore, the schools near Adrien didn’t offer the standard of education his family expected, and they also wanted Adrien to maintain his education in English.


So, during his time in France InterHigh became Adrien’s favoured option. “I love the freedom that InterHigh offers where you can balance lesson time with self-study. I have four, 40-minute lessons a day with plenty of homework that I can do at any time that suits me. With international flights likely to be limited for the foreseeable future, I feel lucky to have a constant stable education that I love.”


When asked if he finds learning at home lonely, Adrien explains, “No! It gives me the freedom to work around going out and seeing my friends, attending boxing classes and the theatre.”


Whether families need that flexibility because their child is a young actor, model, athlete or entrepreneur or if they want to study a subject not offered by their local school, InterHigh welcomes working with international schools to fill long or short-term requirements. We can support schools with a blended alternative or find the right resource to fill the needs of a future looking school especially as schools seek out and re-evaluate their online offering and teaching solution.



If we can find an upside amongst all the outcomes of Covid, it is the fact that there has been a huge swell of appreciation of the benefits of online learning and remote work. With Covid likely to disrupt schooling for some time to come, our teachers who are highly experienced at teaching virtually and delivering the highest quality, stable education, are an attractive option for schools, families, students and teachers.

To discuss a partnership with Wey Education in more detail, please visit:


Esther Clark is Marketing Director at Wey Education Plc. She is also an author and contributor to Forbes, America Economia and the World Economic Forum (WEF). Esther is a Peter Drucker Global Challenge winner and executive leader who promotes and practices human centered management and integrated thinking.

Creating Authentic Marketing Messages and a Value Proposition to Build School Enrolment.

Dr Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation)


Creating Authentic Marketing Messages and a Value Proposition to Build School Enrolment.


For so many international schools, the economic reverberations of the world health crisis have rapidly translated to a confronting enrolment and marketing challenge for Boards, owners and leadership teams.

In many ways, it has put centre stage something that was already a building problem for so many schools – weaknesses in the authenticity and impact of their marketing and marketing messages. While there has been increased recognition of the potential importance of marketing in schools, they still find it difficult to define and communicate points of difference in compelling and cogent ways to audiences. A precondition to build enrolment is an authentic, cogent and compelling identity driven by marketing messaging that impacts.

A quick search of international school websites continues to suggest that creating authentic, differentiated marketing messages is beyond most schools. Straplines and slogans on websites (i.e. integrated into brand schemes), have become commonplace to try and convey a distinctive school identity. In general, they are illusionary, and expensive. Despite improvements in the public ‘look and feel’ of schools, a systemic weakness in schools is the continued lack of influence and impact of marketing messages on parent choice and the authenticity (originality) of marketing messages. Hence so many schools have weak value propositions (USPs). We live in a world of fake news, rejection of logic, illusion and instantaneous sharing. Marketing messaging of reputable institutions like schools surely has to take all of that into account and do better!

And it’s not just problems with the actual marketing messages, schools typically have far too many messages – they tend to be too inclusive and say something about almost everything in the hope that something will connect.

A narrow and deep set of messages explained in terms of actual benefit to the student/parent, why they are valuable and matter both in the short and long term, and proof that they are a reality across the student/parent journey is a far more compelling narrative for school audiences. In this regard, we can learn one lesson from the corporate world – top brands are usually associated with a very small (not more than 2-3) set of attributes in achieving penetrative and attractive identities.

To impact on public perception and enrolment, school marketing must be more than ‘lots of activity’ pushing out similar messages that aim to connect with increasingly diverse audience preferences and expectations.

Marketing Messaging: Pitfalls to Avoid and the ‘To Do’ List

For the foreseeable future, we think that the quality of marketing messaging in schools will be a tipping point and catalyst for market success or failure.

How can schools effectively address the challenges they face in the search for the ‘right’ marketing messaging in a time of enrolment pressure?

Our work with schools on marketing over 3 decades manifests in 6 crucial guidelines for action to review and enhance marketing messaging.


Schools struggle to distinguish or differentiate themselves, nor explain compelling and cogent reasons to choose them (enrol) over other alternate schools.


Clear points of difference in messages, and or messages that may be common but are known to be highly valued by parents/students (prospective, current and past).


A sameness (generic) in the way schools project themselves that does little to create a sustainable identity, or connect well with diverse audiences/expectations.


Marketing messages that are not generic (e.g. a current or possible future innovation or theme) to build a clear school identity and trajectory. Parents/students being able to consistently 1-2 words they would assign to the image of the school that is aligned with the actual espoused school identity.


A lack of messaging and understandable communication on differentiation at the classroom/pedagogy level, so essential for effective and persuasive marketing messages.


More said about staff quality, teaching and pedagogy in marketing messaging. Illustrating authentic school wide pedagogies, how it is of benefit, what is genuinely being done to genuinely enhance and monitor it.


Weak links between the School Vision (and or Mission) and the marketing messages..


An inspiring and ambitious School Vision sets the scene for messages that can be marketed successfully. That is in demand everywhere.


Lack of connectivity in marketing messaging to specific audiences.


Minimising disconnect between what schools are saying (messaging) and the realities and consistency of the holistic parent/student journey is core to building reputation.


Do not over-rely on corporate models to build school identity. Credible high value education messages are what the market most wants here.


Effective marketing messages must override slick mottos which often creates cynicism, not enhanced reputation in school communities.


Flowing from the above, schools need an organising framework to see where and how build a messaging narrative that is consistent and deep. From our experience, a market messaging development action framework should span the below working from left to right:

Such a framework will take schools on a better path toward:

  • More precise marketing messaging definition, and explanation.
  • A narrative for the future identity of the school to align internal strengths/capabilities with external audience preferences.
  • Credibility in marketing messages/value proposition.
  • Formation of Performance metrics to support whether or not market messaging truly impacts on perceptions of the School.


The process of reviewing marketing messaging has a wider benefit and implication.

Starting with the end goal in mind (a compelling and cogent set of reasons to choose your school), the process should inherently inform 3 big strategic issues:

Strategic Issue 1: How Should Your School Compete?

Agreement on what basis (which messages and value proposition) your school can primarily engage to appeal and be seen as attractive.

Strategic Issue 2: Where to Compete – Which Audiences/Which Messages?

In terms of where (what audiences or profiles), explicitly define the audiences the various messages are most likely to attract and the most appropriate marketing messages for each persona. This will assist in targeting and creating specific examples/proof points that would resonate with specific audiences.

Strategic Issue 3: How to Refine your Education Offer to Align to Marketing Messages?

Almost invariably, our diagnosis of schools is that with market challenges are partly a ‘product’ and alignment matter (what a school offers including services), and partly messaging (how a school externalises and communicates that offer). So, a messaging review is best when it is informative from this perspective also.

In conclusion, impactful and differentiated marketing messages continues to be an elusive problem for schools everywhere we look. In the times we now live in, the interrelated questions of what is ‘best’ to say and how ‘best’ to say it can no longer be considered merely prosaic for schools seeking to survive and thrive. Crafting impactful marketing messaging in schools requires a process that includes robust market analysis – it is not merely an act of creativity or imagination.

Please contact Dr Stephen Holmes at for further details.


Dr Stephen Holmes is the Founder and Principal of The 5Rs Partnership ( Based in Singapore, The 5Rs Partnership is a global consultancy specifically for schools in strategy planning, marketing and market research, reputation management, and governance, established in 2004.  Stephen is the only full-time practicing consultant in the world with a PhD in marketing schools. LEARN MORE

Is your school different?

Marcia De Wolf, Director, Quisite Consulting

Your school is a wonderful institution that provides an excellent education to its students and is a place where students, teachers and parents feel at home. You know it and everyone in your school community knows it too. 

If yours is a typical international school, then many of your families move to their next posting after about 3 years, except for the locals and long-term expats who have settled in your country. The teaching staff is a mix of young, ambitious teachers who leave after two or three years to explore the next country, and longer term staff members who feel they have found a working environment they wish to remain in. Sounds about right? 

So why do families come to your school? Why did they choose it over other schools in the area? What do they enjoy most about it? Why do teachers apply to work at your school? Do you know? 

If I ask you why new families should come to your school, would you be able to tell me? Would you feel comfortable with your answer and confident that this is something new families or staff are looking for? What do you offer that “the school across town” does not? What makes your school unique? 

You will probably tell me that they should pick your school since it is obvious that you are the best school in the region! Is it obvious though, to people not yet in your community? And how are you the best, exactly? And if you are indeed the best, how can you prove that?  

In the ever-changing landscape of international schools, few schools have the luxury of waiting lists. If anything, there is more competition than ever and beating other schools in attracting new families is essential to reach your enrolment numbers.  

When you are ‘on the inside’, you often assume your school’s unique features are obvious to those looking at your school for the first time. The experience for those ‘on the outside’, however, can be quite different than you imagine 

Prospective parents want to find a school that resonates with them, that they feel will be a good fit for their children as they move to this new country, where they will need to find new friends and learn a new language. They will likely skip past your school, even if it shows up first in the results on Google, if you have the same standard language as any other school. To get a family’s attention and have a chance to be contacted for a visit, you must find a way to connect with these parents to make them notice your school and consider it for their children. You need to provide a solution to their concerns as they start the relocation process.  

Look at it from the family’s perspective:  

Let’s say a family has just been informed they will be moving to your country on their first expat posting. Very exciting but daunting at the same time, moving to a country they have never been to and where they speak a different language. They have two children (9 and 14 years old), who do not speak much English and need basic learning support. Where do they start? They make a list: learn about the country and city, find a house, a school, a moving company, get transcripts from the current school, and so on. 

They will do a Google search to see what international schools come up for that city. They find some options and continue to the various websites, perhaps checking the schools’ social media channels. What do they find? Very similar information on the websites, happy faces on the social media channels, mostly of classroom or extra-curricular activities. To them, the schools all seem alike and offer a very similar experience.  

I picked a random big city in Europe and checked the websites of three quality international schools. Here is what their sites want me to know: 

School 1: we offer an American education, international community, and exceptional results 

School 2: “we prepare our students to engage with and succeed in a complex world 

School 3: “we are the oldest international school in x, have a rich history of inclusion and diversity, and offer a warm welcome to children.  

These are by no means differentiators. In fact, most international schools in the world claim to: 

  • offer a great education and excellent results. 
  • provide a learning environment in which students thrive. 
  • have a diverse and welcoming international community. 

If these are the reasons your school uses to attract new families and expect prospective families to come rushing through the door, you may wish to reconsider as it does not differentiate you from any other international school on the globe 

Do you feel your website, for a first-time visitor who knows nothing about your school, effectively tells your story? Does it convey the features that make your school so special? The many elements that you and everyone already at the school know, but a prospective parent doing a search does not?  

Prospective parents do not care if you have a flashy website, with fancy features. They want to see that you are a good fit for their children and get the sense that you understand their needs.  

I suggest you take an objective look at your school’s website, but from the perspective of an expat family that does not know your school, your country or international schools. Review your website, especially the home page, and consider whether this is the information you should see if you are a prospective family.  

For most expats, school is home away from home, the support network that needs to take the place of family and friends. It must fill a big chunk of a new family’s life, so the choice is of huge importance to any family starting the relocation process. Look at it from their perspective, what do you want them to feel and what do you absolutely want them to know when they visit your website for the first time?  

Have you already considered and identified differentiating factors for your school? Great! See if they pass the test: are they true, can you prove them, are they relevant and are they well communicated?  

Have you not yet considered what makes your school special or feel you may not be communicating it effectively? No problem, you now have an excellent opportunity to increase the number of new student inquiries by looking at differentiating your school now 

Please send me an e-mail at if you are interested in further discussing this topic and receiving some guidance on the process to follow 

In the meantime, keep up the great work and don’t underestimate all the seemingly small things your school does that can make it special and very appealing to new families! 


Marcia has been involved in branding and marketing activities for 26 years, both in North America and Europe. She started her career at CNN Headquarters in the Public Relations department for five years, before working in strategic communications at two leading PR agencies, Ketchum and GCI, guiding clients such as IBM, Nokia, Dell, and Sony.
She started her own consultancy in 2018 to focus on providing strategic services in marketing and branding. Her clients include the Justine Henin Tennis Academy, Bugatti, FIFA and UEFA. She also runs events for the Belgian national men’s soccer team, ranked number 1 in the world and manages a group of Belgian female sports legends, such as Tia Hellebaut, Kim Gevaert, Ann Wauters and other Olympic and world medalists. A frequent speaker and workshop leader at ECIS conferences, Marcia has successfully advised many schools in the area of effective marketing and branding over the past 15 years.