Carolyn Reed and Katie Cardona of Reed Brand Communication reveal the tricks of the trade when repositioning your school brand
Merge, sell or reposition? This is the question many businesses are asking themselves now, not least of which are independent schools. Like most parts of the luxury products’ sector, independent education is facing challenging times. On top of rocketing fuel bills, inflation and a diminishing pool of affluent customers, the potential of adding VAT to fees and/or the loss of charitable status means that forward-looking schools are increasingly seeking ways to become financially sustainable and stronger in order to weather this storm. For some, it may come down to survival.
Prep schools appear to be the most vulnerable, but those in which the governors and senior leadership team have long-distance vision are taking action. Some are accepting offers of a partnership or merger with a local senior school looking for a way to ensure its own sales funnel from the bottom up. Some are forming close relationships with other prep schools in order to share costs and unify their individual offers, and some are selling up to foreign investors.
But many are seeking to ‘reposition’ themselves with a fresh and relevant start. And the key word here is ‘relevant’.
When repositioning or rebranding schools, heads shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water in their eagerness for a bright and shiny quick fix before they move swiftly on to their next headship. However tempting it may be to make changes, though, they should keep calm and remember that the vast majority of school brands owe a great deal to their DNA, which is formed of their core educational vision, brand heritage and sheer love from their community. Touching this can be perilous.
This scenario has played out recently at John Lewis where much has been said about the group battling to regain its soul in order to survive. A focus on finances has meant that the retail group has been criticised for losing sight of its values and not understanding the position it holds as a revered and admired British institution. What happens next at John Lewis will be watched closely by brand strategists. If we were asked what the solution to its problem might be, here’s what we would advise.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Repositioning your brand, whether a school or retail group, is a process undertaken in three stages, bringing everyone that matters along with you in the process.
The first stage is to gather all the information you can about the current (and past) attributes of your school brand. Talk to parents to understand what really matters to them. Talk to pupils to find out what they love about their school. Speak to staff and alumnae. Review your local competitor schools and try to find out what their future plans are. Understand the ongoing impact the wider economic situation will have on parents. And most importantly appreciate what your school truly stands for.
The second stage is to reinterpret and revitalise this brand positioning for the next academic year and beyond. Dig deep and find true empathy with your school community, current and future. Put yourself in your parents’ shoes – what is their expectation when they commit to paying independent school fees and what do these families really need from this school? In-house research and specialist external researchers will help you to find the answers you need.
The third and final stage is the most challenging. This isn’t about a new logo. It may include one further down the line but, for now, it’s about having a long, hard look at what you can do to answer your current and future parents’ needs in order to build numbers and stay sustainable. It may be fulfilling their childcare needs, offering stripped-down, affordable fees, creating a mixed school for parents who no longer want single sex, or offering an education that will equip their child for an ever-changing world.
Once you’ve arrived at the answers then you can do the fun, design bit, but only if the design elements need changing in order to truly revitalise the brand. It might be a simple case of changing your descriptor, photography and ways that you communicate your new offer.
Brands with true longevity retain a constancy at their core, yet maintain the ability and foresight to flex according to changing circumstances. They revitalise and are forever relevant. Here are some in the independent school sector that are doing just that.
RYDES HILL PREPARATORY SCHOOL AND NURSERY, GUILDFORD
Rydes Hill is a high achieving girls’ prep school where more than 90% of pupils gain a place at their first-choice school at 11-plus. The school recognised that most parents were both working and needed full-time nursery provision. This extended the core values of Rydes Hill, and the pastoral care for which it is recognised, by offering its youngest pupils a 48-week a year, extended day, educational nursery. It also enabled the school to have a larger funnel of pupils into reception.
Sarah Norville, head of Rydes Hill, explains: “In the past five years our co-ed nursery has transformed from having around 10 to15 children per day, to a thriving nursery with two classes that are full each day. We took the decision to split our nursery into two classes and move into new, purpose-built accommodation in 2021, and the result has been fantastic. The demographic of the parents across the school as a whole is predominantly dual working, so the decision to move to an all-year-round model (while maintaining term time – only as an option) was a game changer. We try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate the needs of our families.”
KING’S HOUSE SCHOOL, RICHMOND
King’s House is a thriving boys’ prep with a long-standing reputation for excellence in the local area. The school is forward-thinking and in tune with wider societal shifts and remains constantly relevant in the world of boys’ education. For example, the school has introduced a number of contemporary initiatives such as Good Lads, to ensure the boys understand what it is to be kind and a responsible man in the world today.
King’s House also meets the challenges of the changes in structure for prep schools. While sending an increasing number of boys to senior schools at 11, it also welcomes in a new cohort at the same point who need preparation for entry to boarding senior schools at 13-plus.
At the same time, it had a mixed nursery with parents urging it to take the girls on into the prep school this year. This coincided with more parents seeking a co-ed school for their children. This year it announced that from September it will become a fully co-ed prep school.
Marketing manager Bella Frost says: “The decision for KHS to move to full co-education was ultimately driven by parent demand. The nursery has been co-ed since it opened in 2009, and increasingly we had been hearing from parents (of boys and girls) how much they’d love for the school to be co-ed. We’ll be able to better meet the needs of local families by becoming the only co-ed prep in Richmond – we’ve been told many times how much easier it would be for parents to only have one drop off. Parents also value the social benefits of co-ed, and the move ultimately allows us to keep up with the times.”
HALSTEAD PREP SCHOOL FOR GIRLS AND ST ANDREW’S SCHOOL, WOKING
These two local, successful prep schools recognised the need for a new and dynamic co-ed school that would extend from nursery to 16. From September, it will be forming an equal partnership to do this, with the launch of Halstead St Andrew’s School.
St Andrews, Woking is already a co-ed school and merging with Halstead, a girls-only prep school, means an even better gender balance. Extending to 16, yet still providing preparation for other senior schools, the new partnership school will continue to recognise the need for choice among some parents and also the reassurance for others that their children will no longer need to undergothe 11-plus/13-plus process. It’s a win-win outcome.
The current head of St Andrew’s School Woking and future head of Halstead St Andrew’s, Dominic Fitzgerald state: “Our vision is to build on the current success of both schools, to develop the best we both offer and to create a dynamic and exciting new school that prepares pupils for an ever-changing world.
“The partnership will also provide more opportunities and greater career enhancement for our staff. This in turn will enable us to develop the already outstanding educational provision we currently offer and preserve the well- known, well-loved family atmosphere that both schools provide. While both Halstead and St Andrew’s School are successful and stable, together we will be more robust to face the future.”
These examples demonstrate that by taking the best of who they are and adapting those characteristics to meet the changing market, these schools have been able to strengthen and future-proof their brands. As Charles Darwin said “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change”.