Chapter 1: Redefine the problem
‘How do you achieve growth in a shrinking industry?’ is the question that keeps the Headmaster up at night. As a collective working in the Independent School sector, we need to change the narrative; the demographics of the country are certainly changing, however MTM’s research does not suggest that supply of school places across the UK out strips the number of people able to afford it.
Below are some comments we hear all to regularly:
1) There aren’t any children out there – MTM’s recent study evidenced that over 1 million potential private school pupils aren’t making it into the system.
2) There aren’t any children out there – how many families ask for prospectuses?
3) The ‘zero sum gain’ myth – if we get better and attract more pupils all we are doing is depriving the school next door of children – we will come back to this one.
4) No one wants to board any more – have you asked why? Parents are getting busier!
5) One very real problem – having the right cultural mix in the school…
One challenge that is very difficult to resolve is finding the right demographic mix for your school. This challenge is truly complex, and a very personal choice for the school. Our guidance is that it should reflect the demographic of the area (measured in student intake). If the wrong balance is struck the effect will take 2-3 intake years to manifest itself. Strategic use of bursaries and scholarships can be used to modify (and often expand) both the demographic mix and appeal of the school.
So let’s discuss the excuses we hear:
1) There aren’t any children out there: James and the MTM team carried out a study last year and determined that there are around 1.5 million pupils not using independent schools who would be expected to, which is more than double the total number of pupils presently at independent schools. What this tells us is, despite the common perception, it is an underserved market.
2) There aren’t any children out there: How many prospectuses do you routinely send out each year? 600? 800? We know that 1 of those will appear in the MTM offices, but that leaves documented interest in 599 places at your school. ‘Wait wait!’ we hear you cry – 1 prospectus does not equate to one student place. Parents tend to investigate 3 schools, so it is likely to drop to 199 2/3 pupils (we often deal in fractions of a pupil). Our point here is that number in prospectuses demonstrates there is demand for your School.
3) The zero sum gain myth: the assumption that if an Independent School gains a pupil that is one less available to the surrounding Independent Schools. This paradigm is one that has left industries crippled in the past, take Costa entering the coffee business in the UK, when there was a price war between Maxell House and Nescafe instant. The industry has since expanded to include Costa, Nero, Nespresso and a myriad of others.
4) No one wants to board any more: James and the MTM team are often confronted with the challenge ‘should we stop accepting applications for boarding?’. Once again this is an area that requires reframing; parents are getting busier, however the benefits of boarding have been undersold to the point it is often stigmatised. Boarding, especially flexi-boarding, often provides an expanded catchment area for the school and increased convenience for parents.
In summary, the community of independent schools needs to embrace growth, not be afraid of the shrinking market. Evidence points to an increase in demand for schools, but capturing that is the challenge. MTM has taken this challenge and has started its Evolution brand focused on growth in independent schools, see our website or call us for more details.