Turn your school around

  • 24th May 2024

David Preston. headmaster of Arnold Lodge School in Leamington Spa discusses the strategic changes that drove his school’s growth


The ‘to do’ list of any independent school headteacher is an extensive one. When we are tasked with turning around a school’s fortunes and driving school growth, the task can seem particularly daunting to increase pupil numbers, retention and recruitment. Looking to the future, the already competitive independent school market will only become more-so and having clarity about your strategy for the future will be crucial in the success of your school. For effective pupil recruitment, we each have to be able to answer and explicitly explain why a parent should choose to send their child to our school over any other.

In September 2016, at the start of my headship, pupil numbers at Arnold Lodge were about 160 and reflected a steady decline in pupil numbers over a number of years. For September 2024, we have more than 480 pupils confirmed on roll and we will continue to recruit through the rest of the academic year. To have 200% growth in just eight years is an outstanding performance for the school. Our success in recruitment and retention is not down to any one thing and, while we cannot profess to have all the answers, I am hopeful sharing some of the steps we have taken may be useful to other school leaders seeking to drive school growth.

Early beginnings

Before moving to go all-through in 2008, Arnold Lodge had been a preparatory school. The move to all-through changed the very nature of the school. Before, we prepped for the eleven-plus. After the change, we didn’t. This, in many ways, had a destabilising influence on the culture of the school. What exactly did we stand for? What did we want to achieve? Which pupils and parents were our demographic?

While working through these questions, I read about Simon Sinek’s principle of the ‘golden circle’ (you are probably familiar with this, but if not, look it up on YouTube).

Too often, schools will focus on what their results are and how they achieve them. In many cases schools take the same approach and therefore the marketing message is almost the same. The only difference is that there’s a different school logo.

The ‘How’ (excellent teaching, small classes, wider curriculum opportunities) and the ‘What’ (excellent results, well-rounded pupils) is, I’m sure, something we all strive for and, more or less, all have in common. Instead, if we focus on why our schools exist, we can provide a clear differentiation within a competitive market. What is the motivation of your school? What do you believe as a community? Why do you get up each day to do the job you do? Why does your school do what it does?

The happier, the better

At Arnold Lodge, we believe happy children learn best. Building an ethos and culture that focuses on the welfare and happiness of children is, we think, central to learning. That is our ‘Why’ and, in many ways, the ability to articulate this has been central to the shift in growth. Arnold Lodge School’s mission is: ‘To develop the happiness, confidence and skills of each pupil so they can be successful in their aspirations’.

As our ‘Why’ evolved into a school mission, it became clear that the ‘values’ of the school needed to be reviewed in line with this. Previously, we had had a series of values (there were around five) and each had a series of statements that were written by the leadership team. These were, if I’m being frank, nonsense. The culture and values of a school is not what we, as senior leaders, say it is. Nor is it what we post on the website.

Instead, it is the lived experience of every part of your school community, every moment of the school day. If the staff, pupils and parents within a school community are not able to articulate and aspire towards the vision, values and ethos, then it simply is not there. The process to work through a shared vision and values deserves a write-up of its own – suffice to say that the more stakeholders engaged in the process, the more genuine the outcome becomes. For Arnold Lodge, three school values emerged – Honesty, Hard Work and Kindness. These values reflected the heritage of the school, the more recent success and values that would serve the school community well in the future.

New ways

Our Pupil Parliament of the time (school council, in effect) developed the idea of building a new house system around the values. Our old house system (Saxon House, Stuart House, Tudor House and Windsor House) had allowed for pupils to enjoy friendly in-school competition but there was little to differentiate between the meaning for the houses (save the associated colour). Our new house system set out to be able to give daily meaning to the pupils in relation to the school values and add an extra competitive edge.

Alongside the benefits of a freshly rebooted – and now fiercely competitive – house system, the change meant that every pupil has a firm grasp of the culture, ethos and values of our school. While I am pushing my luck a little with Reception, from Year 1 onwards every pupil can explain to me the house they’re in, the core values of their house (and the other houses) and the ethos of the school. This, I think, has been the key change for Arnold Lodge in the past few years. No longer is the ethos something that is intangible or found on the website – now, it is something that staff, pupils and parents can all directly engage in, every day. Having pupils explain the culture and ethos of Arnold Lodge on a tour with prospective parents is more effective than it could ever be coming from me.

See the difference

As we asserted clarity around our values, ethos and vision, we were able to provide clear differentiation in our marketing and messaging. While this was a significant step towards improving recruitment, it would not have been enough on its own. We invested in developing our marketing and admissions team to ensure that we had adequate staffing to handle enquiries. It is important that interactions with the school from the very first enquiry be of an excellent quality and I don’t think we can overstate the value of polite, helpful and timely responses to initial enquiries. In a competitive market, the relationship built with the admissions team can make the difference between one school and another.

Growing the reputation of your school and increasing awareness for prospective parents is, of course, another facet to growth in pupil numbers. Before delving into marketing, there is one thing you have to get right: your school website and your school Wikipedia page. Parents will search your school and they will read your website. Invest in your website and a good-quality photographer for the images and you will most certainly see the return. Check on the Wikipedia page as it will, like your website, be read by prospective parents (and do not forget it can be changed). It cannot be overstated the impact good first impressions have for parents and a modern and well-maintained website is key. In a similar vein, we prioritised capital expenditure last summer towards the school’s reception area and the creation of a ‘meeting room’ for parents to ensure those initial moments of entering the school reflected the qualities – and values – that we aspired for.

A bit of growth

When looking for growth in pupil numbers, it’s all too easy to feel that a large marketing spend is the answer. If you are a smaller school like Arnold Lodge, it is impossible to match the marketing spend of larger schools in the area. It is important, therefore, that any money spent on marketing goes towards high-quality and high-impact items. Over the years, we have tried a whole range of marketing (billboards, text message blasts, bus backs, Facebook advertising, leaflet drops, newspaper adverts, local sponsorship). Each, in their own way, was effective, but often the value of the return simply didn’t make it a worthwhile investment. Instead, we target our marketing budget on billboards for key entry points (September for Year 7, for example), digital advertising (brush up on using Facebook business manager – you can directly target your specific audience) and local PR (newspaper editorial, adverts and local placement). This, we have found, provides the best value for money.

In many ways, the best marketing is the one that is free. Word of mouth is most powerful, but there’s plenty that can be done in addition to this. Engage with your local community as often as you can (in full uniform) to get the word out there about your school. Sing at a retirement home, run charity events, have a stall at the local food fair and sell cupcakes – while this will be beneficial for your pupils’ experience, it will engage the local community in your school.

There really is not a magic recipe to successful school growth. While I am hopeful that Arnold Lodge’s story may provide help for some, I know that so much varies on the local context, the nature of your competitors and the context of your own school, too. If you do one thing to support your plans for retention and recruitment, answer the question “why pick our school?” and ask a variety of stakeholders to do the same. If the reasons the stakeholders give are the same, wonderful. Share that and build on it for your messaging. If they are not, seize the chance to begin sharing the story of your culture, ethos and vision. Either way, it will make a difference.

David Preston

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