The annual ISC censuses show that student numbers in the independent school sector have risen year-on-year for much of the past decade. Demand for sixth form places is particularly strong, with approximately 18 per cent of 16+ pupils in the UK in independent education compared to around 7 per cent of 11-15 year olds. For the sector as a whole, 13 per cent of pupils at ISC schools board.
At sixth form, this proportion more than doubles to over one third of all pupils. In addition to boarding being far more prevalent at sixth form than at junior level, sixth form pupils are far more likely to board on a full-time basis with 89 per cent of sixth form boarding pupils full boarders.
Triggers for moving
There are a number of perceived reasons for this level of interest in a sixth form independent education. Research indicates that girls in particular move from single sex schools to co-ed at this 16+ entry point. Expense is also likely to be a factor, with transfer from the maintained sector at 16+ an increasingly likely option for parents keen to keep overall costs affordable.
Independent schools may also offer particular academic subjects at sixth form or have a strong reputation for success in entrance to highly competitive higher education courses — such as for medicine, veterinary science – which makes a move attractive. Prospective students may also be attracted by evidence that offers secured to top Russell Group institutions — including Oxbridge — or scholarships to top international universities such as Ivy League in the US may be high.
More and more independent schools are offering a pre-university style sixth form education and pupils may choose to board at this stage as a prelude to moving away from home to university. Equally pupils may be happy to choose a sixth form further afield, with a greater propensity to fully board as a result.
Highlighting the differences
Taking all this into account, it is perhaps surprising when you start researching sixth form offerings at independent schools that few seem to market their sixth form particularly differently. Some do not even have a dedicated section for sixth form on their websites, rather incorporating these two years within their main school structure.
“Few independent schools seem to market their sixth form particularly differently.”
This could be due to the desire to portray a seamless transition through the school years without any definitive break point driven, particularly from a financial perspective, by a desire to avoid a loss of pupils at the end of fifth form. Yet when you consider the ISC figures, this is surely a missed chance to highlight the differences of sixth form. Why not showcase the new opportunities it offers, not only for incoming new pupils but also for your existing customers, highlighting what additional exciting areas are going to be open to them when they leave the GCSE years behind.
Marketing 16+ entry is different to marketing 11+ or 13+ entry for numerous reasons, but here are some areas to consider when planning your sixth form admissions and marketing:
A different customer with different priorities
When attracting pupils to join a school at 11+ or 13+, pupils are still young and while they are having an increased input into the decision-making process, the chances are that it is the parents who are still choosing the school, or at least narrowing that choice down to a couple of options.
Marketing materials – both online and print – therefore lean towards addressing the parent rather than the pupil and events held at the school are predominantly aimed at adults, at least during the decision-making stage. At sixth form, the pupils are young adults and in general the drivers in the decision to move schools after GCSE. A prospective school’s outreach activity therefore needs to be more personally focused on them, not their parents, across all marketing materials. For example, there should be different media engagement, and dedicated events styled to showcase sixth form opportunities, spearheaded by current pupils wherever possible who can share their experiences.
“A prospective school’s outreach activity needs to be more personally focused on students, not their parents.”
Choosing an independent education is a life-changing decision at any stage, and some elements remain a constant whatever the entry point — smaller classes, a wide range of co-curricular opportunities, strong pastoral care often through a 1-1 tutor system and a greater range of facilities. But when considering how to market your sixth form, you need to take into account the different priorities of this age group.
If pupils are going to take the plunge and move school, they are going to be looking for exciting opportunities and an inspirational change. Perhaps they have attended the same school for many years, or perhaps they want to move from — or to — single sex to co-education. They may want more freedom away from home through the option to board.
The co-curricular opportunities offered by an independent education are well documented and surpass those at a maintained school not least as in general they have more grounds to work with and more facilities. Or perhaps they are international pupils aiming to come to the UK for sixth form to gain a better chance of entrance to a top British university.
“A direct tone of voice when marketing to prospective sixth formers is a simple way to differentiate your offering.”
A direct tone of voice when marketing to prospective sixth formers is a simple way to differentiate your offering. You are writing to young adults who are key decision makers. A friendly, welcoming piece from the head acknowledging the major step to move schools at 16 and highlighting the opportunities sends a powerful message that every pupil will be welcomed as an individual, with their own priorities satisfied.
Routes to Market
While at 11+ or 13+ pupils are coming at a time of a natural break in their schooling — such as the end of primary school or the end of prep school — many senior schools have their own sixth form and want to retain their pupils, so reaching prospective pupils is all the more challenging for admissions and marketing teams. Unless a senior school ends at 16, your Open Day posters and other marketing literature is unlikely to be welcome in a prospective pupil’s current school, and there will be no ‘future schools’ exhibitions or events hosted for their current parents. So marketers need to think creatively.
A separate section differentiating the sixth form offering on the school website is crucial. Most prospective sixth formers will be using the web as their first point of research — and they are savvy and know what they are looking for.
Onsite and virtual events dedicated to aspects of sixth form life can be extremely effective ways to reach your potential market. Hold a separate sixth form open event, where all the opportunities are showcased. Some schools offer taster boarding sessions which can be a great way to give prospective sixth formers the chance to explore this option and see if it is for them. There are also opportunities through GCSE revision courses, summer schools, careers fairs, talks and lectures, sports courses and arts events to cast the net wider.
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of digital marketing. Alongside a website, most schools now have a presence on one or more of the main social media. It is important to segment these and use them according to the audience you are trying to reach. At present, as a generalisation, teenagers favour TikTok, YouTube and Instagram over Facebook and Twitter. Instagram stories and video content are more likely to gain the interest of your average 14 to 15-year-old than a static image and lines of text on Facebook.
“Today’s teenage internet browser wants information quickly and in easily digestible and engaging form.”
Similarly, think about the layout and content of the web pages with this in mind. Today’s teenage internet browser wants information quickly and in easily digestible and engaging form. No matter how wonderful your academic departments are, pages of text about course information is not going to catch the bright eye of a potential sixth former. That information can be distributed later. Much more appealing might be pupil produced film, blog posts from current sixth formers or a dedicated pupil-run Instagram feed.
Monitoring from a staff member is needed but allowing current pupils as much freedom as possible to get peer to peer messages across moves away from the more formal “marketing speak” and gives pupils a sense of what life is really like behind the scenes. Perhaps have a dedicated chat facility for sixth formers to answer questions direct from prospective pupils, or a slot during an event to “ask the pupils” — either online or in person.
Do your research
As marketers, we all recognise the importance of research. The likelihood is that many admissions and marketing staff are largely removed from the current teenage trends and it is important you find ways to be better informed. In this, your current pupils are your best resource — so use them! Focus groups questioning new joiners about their approach to a move and why they chose your school, your differentiators, what excites them about these final two years and guidance on the best media to use is valuable feedback which can directly inform your sixth form marketing strategy.
Sixth form marketing is certainly a challenge, but with a dedicated approach and an appreciation of the priorities of this particular group of potential stakeholders, it can be one of the most exciting, diverse and rewarding parts of a marketing and admissions remit.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.