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When You Ask Someone to Babble, They Will Babble

Or: Challenges we're facing in the UK indepedent sector.

Blame Open Apply. They asked me to do it.

You have to forgive Matt. When he asked me to speak at his Webinar, he had asked most of England already. Every Marketing Director, every marketer with a role in education, every marketer who has once worked in education and every marketer who can spell the word education. Indeed every Governor or other leading figure who's once seen a bus wrap or some bus stop advertising and thought, 'Now that's a cracking idea!'

You don't ask me unless you've already asked everyone else.

Because you know what's going to happen. A rambling stream of marketing and no-to-marketing consciousness.

Of course, what you could have done, Matt, is cancel the Webinar.

But he didn't and here we are. And we do not need to guess what happened next? It went on a tangent, Remco didn't follow the slides and we had about fifty topics left by the time we'd reached the end of the Webinar. Now guess what else? I have more to say.

For anyone who missed the Webinar, for anyone who's going to look the other way when Open Apply put the recording on their Website and for anyone who's keen to read what a stream of consciousness looks like; here is your chance.

Here's what we didn't have time for...

Vat on Fees

If you do not know this is looming, then the question isn't whether you've been living under a rock but how big that rock really is.

And if you are, in fact, still among the living.

Dan Cohen from MTM had a good ostrich image to go along with it on his LinkedIn post. But you get the idea, right?

Vat on independent school fees is coming. There is no talking to the people who have thought this up because these are the people we're trying to talk to.

No, literally.

Anyway, I spent a blog on this that you might have read. The short version of that blog, and this policy, is that a) the rich will not get poorer (they may even get richer), b) aspirational families in the middle will drop out, c) the tax raised isn't even going to be a fraction of what we're been promised, d) schools will go out of business, e) people will lose jobs, f) we really do run the risk of ending up having to spend more of our taxes on education in the maintained sector.

g) state education will not get any better, not even by the slimmest of margins.

h) no matter what, kids will pay the price.

It is a badly thought out policy and the worst of it is that it will be a gradual decline with that, over time, will put much more strain on an already strained state education system. For someone else to deal with in five or ten years' time.

Nurture, Nurture, Nurture

In our Webinar, when we discussed what has happened since Covid, lead nurturing was one of the first things that came up. I've got no data on this, which, for a marketer, is like an undertaker admitting they don't know what to do with the body. A lot of the evidence is anecdotal. Not that I didn't toy with the idea of recording the amount of time we spend on lead nurturing. It's just that we don't have any data to reference it to. How much time did we once spend? We don't know.

All we know is that we think we are spending much more time on lead nurturing. Certainly, there has been a rise in the way we can exchange information with prospective families and students. Our exchanges are no longer confined to telephone conversations or an email. We have thrown WhatsApp, LinkedIn, WeChat, Zoom, Teams, Social Media, coffee chats and positive thoughts into the mix. With the sheer increase in exchange types comes the inevitable increase in actual exchanges. Every single question can be asked and depending on the exchange channel, people expect an immediate anwer.

So remember when we used to say, there is no such thing as a stupid question?

Yeah, I bet we all feel pretty stupid about ever saying that now.

Travel, Travel, Travel

Somewhere not quite entirely during the very long post-Covid phase, there was someone who suggested that international travel would never be the same again. He shall remain nameless because he is a moron.

We will never travel the way we used to travel, before Covid. Zoom was added to our desktops. We learnt to say, 'You're on mute,' almost without sounding too passive aggressive and my then ten-year-old learnt how to pretend to freeze on camera so she could switch off her Chromebook and ignore the rest of the lesson. We would only have to travel to a meeting in case of genuinely serious need.

The same person who said we wouldn't travel much post-covid also said we'd see more hybrid events and we'd continue to see online events, which would save a lot on costs. He was wrong about all of that too.

My opinion is that now that travel has gone back to pre-pandemic levels, the online meetings have simply added to the workload. We travel like never before and we're zooming like we did during the Covid pandemic. We haven't started travelling less, we're just buried in a million Zoom and Teams meetings.

Oh and travel costs have gone through the roof.

Grab What You Can

With the above in mind (and the fact that travel costs have increased by a factor of one gazillion) I have come to realise that we are now a global business but with a regional budget. Not because our budget is insufficient - well, not that it ought to be - but because in a short space of time, our budgets have failed to keep up with demand and the increase in costs of everything.

The last time I checked, the list of overseas education events was four pages long. I am sure I missed a few and I used font size ten.

Is that confirmation that the travel situation has gone back to pre-covid or has the need for travel increased?

Whatever it is, it is nothing short of insane. But then so are most of the events on the calendar, which, much like the travel situation, have gone back to pre-pandemic levels as well.

By that, I mean they've gone back to looking like what they were before Covid. We had a brief online spell and now we're back doing what we didn't do very well in the first place. We had a brief dabble with online events and hybrid events and there was some conversation about how we could make B2B and B2C events more effective, more customer-friendly and - I dare say - less costly but all that has been abandoned. We're back in our stuffy rooms, wearing our stuffy suits, surrounded by our stuffy pop-up banners. The only difference is that there are more than ever.

And I don't mind saying this, they're still not very successful.

It's become a business model. My most unpopular opinion, B2C events have become a business model and schools have become the new clients.

So be opportunistic. Seize and grab opportunities where you can. If the rise in costs is keeping us from marketing effectively and the schools we try to market aren't innovating, then everything, everything, is cost.


Know who you are and check whether that will continue to resonate. Brand UK is losing ground worldwide. It's not a massive decline but it's noticeable and it's been going on for the past twenty decades or so. We can deny it, and if I am honest, denial is probably the one skill that Brand Private Boarding School UK has got going for itself. The Gold standard of education, Harry Potter buildings and all that jazz.

The Gold standard, even if that is true, has been surpassed by the Platinum Standard. Plenty of countries that do better and plenty of countries that perform just as well (just free of charge). And Harry Potter's immense popularity also has a shelf life, we might as well accept it. How many generations of overseas children are going to manage to influence their parents to fork over £50,000 a year because a building faintly and vague looks like Hogwarts?

More and more, it's the Millenials who are becoming our parents and they value experiences, they want bang for their buck and they are socially conscious. If we're not targeting them (and only them - as individual human beings as opposed to one big group who all want the same thing), then we're not targeting anyone. So are we going to continue being in denial about this?

Nevertheless, whatever Brand UK does or doesn't do, you still have to know who you are. You still need to know who your school is. Without a clear identity, how can you expect anyone to recognise you? How can you expect to resonate with a prospective family or student if you have no identity.

Be authentic . We're a Yorkshire school and guess who's driving!


Your marketing strategy has to follow suit. You've heard the stories. You know what people are talking about. You have to be authentic. People can read and listen through the bullshit nowadays. It means you've got to be honest while trying to flog your school and the first step is highlighted above. Find out who you are.

Take location for instance, a hot topic among overseas students for absolutely no other reason but the fact they have a map. You're either close to London or you're not. Cut the bullshit. There is no grey area. If you're in it, you're not close to London. You're either academically selective or you're friendly and open to everyone. I am not calling selective schools unfriendly but their identity is not to let everyone into the school. That's okay but it's not friendly. It means that the slightly average brother of the really intelligent and hard working girl they've got there.

He won't get in.

And we have a long way to go, especially when we're presenting ourselves overseas. We look like a clone army. Our pop-up banners all say the same thing. We're the best, the highest-ranked, the leading or the top. We're some kind of compass, some kind of key or some kind of door. And our boarding is all, without fail, a home away from home. We're actually lucky that authenticity is today's fad because if it was originality, we'd all be in serious trouble.

Still, it's not until you walk into the room where we're all sat that visions of the clone army hit you. It looks as if Heads of the World - and people like myself - all get our suits in the same shop and we get our haircuts in the same barber's. The ladies in the room look the same too - yeah, I am saying it. Haircuts and floral-pattern dresses. Meanwhile, the Americans are next door, dressed in chinos, a couple of flimsy handouts (no teddy bears on the table) and smiles on their faces. While our room looks like a funeral directors' conference for the next six to hours we're sat behind our desks, they hand out info for 90 minutes and head out into the sunshine.

If that's authentic, then we're authentically dull and uninspiring and unless I was considering viable euthanasia options for my dog, I wouldn't be visiting that room.

The Good News

While there isn't much good news, the little scraps of good news to combat these challenges are within reach. Sure, Vat on fees isn't going anywhere, we've got time to plan. And planning we ought to be doing (this is within our reach).

If you're not close to London and this is a reason why overseas students won't look at you, like our school, then you can still be authentic. Just say it. You're not close to London. You're not going to lose the students that want to be close to London - you never had them in the first place. You might gain the students who desperately do not want to be close to London. Think of all the students who simply don't know the USPs of the area you're in. If you don't tell them, who will?

You can learn how to nurture leads. You can allocate time to do this (you have to). You can put systems in place to get better at this and to create time to do this. More efficient lead nurturing and a higher conversion rate is within your hands.

Be opportunistic. Sales has long been a dirty word in the independent school sector but sales people see opportunities. Maybe it's time to hire one. And grab what you can. The good news is that there are opportunities to grab. Identify yourself, as we have, as an independent school that needs to recruit new students, every year, in order to remain a viable business. Then make that happen.

And go buy a suit from a different shop. Or some chinos. It's okay to look as if you're enjoying this job...

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