Techniques to boost the school roll

  • 22nd June 2023

Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen from marketing agency MTM Consulting outlines the techniques to boost the school roll by using targeted research to find out who and where parents are


The UK independent education sector is currently standing on the precipice of an uncertain future. There are many challenges which we currently face and that await in the near future, dependent upon how the political climate evolves over the next two years.

One issue that has passed under the radar is the contraction in the birth rate which means that fewer children will be available to enrol in reception and pre-prep years, and this has implications over the coming years in a rolling drop in income. Other issues facing the sector include the possibility of a change to charitable status and/or the addition of VAT on school fees, the current cost of living crisis, the energy crisis and more threats of industrial action that are showing no signs of abating – these all add up to a veritable minefield of problems that school leaders are having to consider as they plan for the future.

Since I work for a company that specialises in the provision and interpretation of data for all types of education settings globally, I feel that statistics always add meaningful context to topical discussion:

  • As of January 2022, there were 9,000,031 children in all schools in England
  • 581,427 of those children were in independent schools
    • That figure represents a 5% market share
    • In 2010, the market share for independent schools was 2%.

    What does that mean in terms of pupil recruitment and the direction of travel?

    Ensuring that your marketing and admissions teams have the budget to carry out their strategies and plans effectively to ensure a high return on investment and conversion rate from the most suitable parents for your school is imperative; this is no time to be cutting the budget of your sales team and those responsible for making sure the top of the recruitment funnel is full.

    This may sound counterproductive when we are looking at ways to cut costs, make efficiency savings and future- proof the school against rising costs. However, a sensibly funded marketing and admissions team working to achieve well-constructed targets and KPIs is the best means to ensure that the school’s roll is consistently where it should be because they will prioritise the parents who are best-suited to your school and have the means to pay the fees.

    For this to work, all strategies and plans must be based on robust research and data analysis. The ‘finger in the air’ approach, or basing future marketing on assumptions, will lead to higher inefficient spend which will inevitably lead to poor results, dissatisfaction, demotivated team members and fewer pupils.

    Fortunately, there are many ways of carrying out in-house research to ensure that you are building up accurate profiles of current parents and collating relevant data sets to determine core messaging; this will not only keep current families happy but is also the most effective way to recruit suitable families at the school’s key entry points.

    Understanding the profiles of the parents you are attracting, and in turn what brought them to your school in the first place, will put you in a better position to articulate the values of the school – the unique selling propositions. However, do bear in mind that a fantastic education, great pastoral care and small class sizes are not USPs in the independent sector. You need to identify what makes your school truly different. This will give you the strong platform to ensure that your messaging is on point with what you actually do well. Likewise, by communicating effectively with your families, understanding the media they consume will also provide you with useful information to ensure that you are advertising on the platforms where like-minded parents spend their time browsing.

    Accurate and timely recording of where every enquiry comes from will allow the marketing team to work out the cost per enquiry and also the cost per place taken, both of which are hugely important metrics that ultimately determine the success of all forms of marketing. This data allows the school to pivot, adjust and change where the marketing budget is spent in order to ensure that the returns are as efficient as possible. Agility and reflection are crucial.

    Keeping an eye on competitors and how they are performing is equally important, for example, having someone attend their open days as a mystery shopper is a great way to see how they ‘sell’ to prospective parents, analyse their customer service and understand the types of families that are showing an interest in their product. It will always provide tips on how you might adjust and improve your open days by comparison.

    Marketeers, not just teachers, can be magpies too. Regular and in-depth communications with parents, ranging from conversations at the school gates, to well thought-out satisfaction surveys, provide another useful, cost-effective way to glean important data using simple research techniques. Online fora such as Mumsnet can also reveal much about current thinking and concerns in the parent body.

    Something which is often overlooked is how to store this data and determine who has access to it. Admissions data should be stored on a customer relationship management system (Hubspot, for instance) or specialist admissions software (METIS); these will allow enquiries to be tracked against where the source of enquiry originated. The net result is easy tracking of the key data points discussed. It will enable marketing and admissions teams to adjust strategies and plan with versatility as they will have full visibility across the system. The ability to compile accurate reports quickly for the head, bursar and trustees saves important time and offers a guarantee of transparency across the iteration of the information.

    In summary, any successful business has to possess a clear understanding of where it stands against the competition at any specific time, as well as a vision of where it want to be in the future – allied with a realistic, strategic development plan to achieve the stated aims within a defined budget. The optimal way that organisations can give themselves the best chance of success and to future- proof themselves as much as possible is by investing in high-quality research at the right time so that all key decisions at board level are taken from a position of informed strength.

    Daniel Cohen is head of business development at MTM Consulting.

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