Working with independent schools in the last couple of years has enabled us to see that many are struggling to be at capacity enrolment for senior (Years 10-12). So why is this and where are the students going? Read on to discover recommendations on independent schools senior enrolments. (Please note this article has been written from a Queensland perspective.)
The answer is rather complex and we hope to be able to provide some clarity and advice.
Understanding the causes
First of all, the opportunities for students today are so much broader in terms of future pathways than they have ever been before. Students can choose from academic OP pathways to Vocational Education and Training. From school-based apprenticeships to University extension programs and more. A school that has limited curriculum opportunities in senior has limitations in appeal and limited ability to keep students through to Year 12.
So if the choice is greater, so is the discernment of which school to go to. A decision is also weighed up against facilities, specialisations, extra-curricular opportunities and the cost (by the parents). Independent Schools (Australia) research in 2016 shows that parents are choosing schools based on a number of factors. The major one are educational excellence, the supportive/caring environment, good teachers, child receiving individual attention and good facilities.
Faith-based environment makes up 14% of choice. Most independent schools are faith-based. Research shows these schools need to be more explicit in how they deliver on these and other key messages. As marketers we are tired of seeing ‘excellence in education’ when we hear a completely different story as to what they offer and what they do at the school!
The greatest competition independent schools’ senior enrolments are facing is not from each other but from the state system. Today it’s a free education with a raft of subjects and pathways! They offer many opportunities that are increasingly targeted at student talent or interest (e.g. Spanish Immersion, Dance Specialisation). As well, there are many International Baccleaurate High Schools.
Add into this the Queensland Academies. These are state schools that have a particular focus e.g Maths/Science or Creative Industries. Beyond this, students can also move to a Trade Industry College where they can choose to finish secondary whilst completing a school based apprenticeship of their choice.
While this is the Queensland independent schools senior enrolments landscape, it could well be similar in New South Wales, Victoria and other states.
How to attract and retain Senior enrolments
So how does an independent school compete? We believe they need to lift their game in a number of ways:
- Many schools think their marketing needs to talk about the holistic nature of their school. Yes, this is often true and it is a given. However they need to lift their game in how they position themselves for senior. Most students are not there for the ‘fuzzy’ values and shaping of good character (unless they’re problem students). That foundation should have been laid by now. Schools may think this is what parents want. In reality they should see that seniors are there for the opportunities, the facilities, the curriculum and the extra-curricular. For this reason the marketing needs to be overt and separate from the rest of the school’s marketing. Consideration needs to be given to ‘senior’ content including website sections, possible senior open days, targeted advertising, videos and more.
- A senior/secondary school cannot be all things to all families/students. If that is the case you are lacking strategy. A school that differentiates itself through clever ‘packages’ for seniors or ‘precincts’ or ‘academies’ for future pathway opportunities, or amazing extra-curricular/specialist coaches etc., is setting itself up well to offer advantages and distinctive marketing content.
- The world is becoming increasingly hard for seniors with issues surrounding bullying, mental health, developing resilience and social coping strategies. Students are at the stage in life where they need to understand deeper lifeskills. For example, establishing their own moral compass (values), what does health wellbeing/self-esteem/healthy self-image look like and how to manage risk (drugs/alcohol/sex/social media). Schools that can position their Social Services and student wellbeing teams and programs have an advantage.
- QUT has led the way with their clever marketing line: The university for the real world. Schools need to realise that senior students need to be prepared for leaving school. Parents want their kids prepared for life after school – wherever in the globe they will be and whatever they will be doing. They want to have skills in technology, resilience, budgeting, organisation… what they want is LIFE SKILLS. Schools that get that students need to be ‘world-ready’ are meeting the market. And it isn’t just about getting them university-ready. Have you been to a university campus lately? Our ivy league campuses are full of international students. Our school leavers are the minority. They’re definitely doing other things upon leaving school including working, travel, gap years and more.
- Lastly, parent engagement drops off in senior but parent engagement is proven to be one of the most effective tools in students having successful results. A healthy school community (culture) will go a long way to ensuring parents are engaged but there is also more to this. What is your school doing to provide programs for parents to help them with teenagers, to help them navigate the pathways choices, preparing their child for life beyond school?
Don’t get us wrong there are still many families still paying high prices for the privilege of their children going to an independent school till Year 12 but the market has become very fractured.
With independent schools senior enrolments the seniors decide themselves!
Increasingly students themselves are charting their own choices as to which school they want to go to. They’re becoming savvy and doing their own research. There are many reasons for this including:
- choosing to be with their cohort – clique
- moving away from a school due to a wrong match (e.g. culture, teachers, curriculum, bullying)
- not knowing what they want to do so wanting to do a combination of opportunities e.g. voc ed plus OP.
However, don’t forget No. 5. above. One thing we can’t get over is why many schools are still making their students wear uniforms that consist of heavy pinafores, heavy blazers and items of clothing that men and women do not wear once they leave school! Functional clothing that is well designed is what schools should be offering. (We’re hearing shorts and pants for girls for starters!)
Independent schools can’t rest on their laurels. Many seem resistant to change or resistant to being ‘too different’. A school that is prepared to be visionary will go well in coming years.