Decades ago when I was just a lad and all this were just fields, my parents fulfilled their legal obligation to send me to school. Was there a discussion about which school to send me to, did they focus on the latest Ofsted report, did they start attending a random church, did we move to a new house? Not a bit of it. I went to the nearest school and that was that. It was all down to catchment area and the town I grew up in was divided up, street by street, to feed into each of the primary schools. When we moved to secondary school it was even easier as there were just two options – unless they fancied splashing out thousands per term so I could go to school with a certain Jonny Wilkinson… (sadly for my rugby ambitions, they did not).
Fast forward to the Easter weekend and I am stood in a play park with my own children, eaves dropping on two ladies alongside me talking about school selection. To put this into context the park we were in is in a small village with a population of just 1,800, and it sits equidistant between two towns of 12,000 and 30,000 respectively, each with a host of schools. It has a small primary school of its own though.
Without going into too much detail, it turns out one lady was from the village and the other, like me, was an outsider – a ‘townie’ – but the outsider schooled her children in the village and the villager’s children, conversely, went to one of the town schools. It was truly bizarre. Both were getting in cars each morning and driving up to 5 miles to school their children, passing perfectly good (my good and OFSTED good) schools. If you have any experience of getting children out the door for school you will question the sanity of these people – why make it harder?
Furthermore, both had either appealed their allocation decision or sat on a waiting list to get their child into the chosen school. It also transpires that these were not isolated cases – apparently, the village school had very little local uptake and relied heavily on outsiders which explains the parking nightmare I pass regularly (always thought it was lazy locals…).
Being involved in education myself, I know that this is actually not an isolated case and it is the same nationwide – house prices in some parts of London are dictated by demand for schools – but as a marketeer it really hit home how much added pressure this puts on schools to market themselves. No longer can you rely on traditional catchment. If you want to fulfil your PAN, you need to get out there and compete – not just with neighbouring schools but further afield and with some increasingly stiff competition – Outstanding schools, faith schools, Free schools and specialist schools.
Experience suggests state and academy schools are not set up for marketing, but with huge focus on finances and a need to get every space filled to help balance the books, they are going to have to learn about marketing pretty quickly (or get an agency to help them…).
Ben Cooper – April 2017