Schools will miss out on good students if they fail to use images of black pupils in promotional literature, writes Elaine Cunningham-Walker
It’s 11+ season and lots of parents are approaching me to help them find the right school for their child. One thing stands out though, which gives parents the impression that their children are not wanted in independent schools: There are no children of colour in the marketing materials that they provide.
Is it that there are no children of colour in the school? Or is it that these children don’t sell the school in the way they want? It’s a message of confusion as these same schools speak about amazing inclusion and diversity policies. Is this just rhetoric that sounds good, but is not carried out in practice?
I spend lots of my time telling parents that these schools actually do have children of colour that add to the culture of the school and also to the experience of every student. Yet these children are not celebrated by being put in the marketing materials.
“In a bid to sell to one part of a demographic, you are not appealing to another.”
Where does this practice come from? It seems to strengthen the systemic problems that are in society as we know it. What exactly are we teaching our children? In a bid to sell to one part of a demographic, you are not appealing to another. Why should I go to a school that clearly gives out the message that they do not want people of colour there?
I work so hard to help schools change these small things and they actually end up with huge results. Diversity is actually real in their school. They are able to connect with rich histories from around the world.
But there are a few things that schools can do to increase their positive messaging to families of colour. Firstly, they have to understand that it’s not just about brand identity and reputation.
International schools need to understand how families evaluate and select schools, beyond this. The majority of international schools prioritise these two components over everything else when it comes to their marketing plans, but having a deeper understanding of what a parent and child requires at a new school will help give the school an edge over its competitors.
“Relationships cannot be established on the illusion or the perception that they are not wanted.”
This means schools making information, including videos and imagery, easily accessible to parents who want to envisage what school life will be like for their child before making a commitment. Parents want to know about the sports clubs, music lessons, and language classes offered by international schools and to really delve into the school’s character.
Not all schools will chime with a child’s personality and it is a priority to find one which enables the child to become part of the fabric of the school. International schools, then, must appeal to a parent’s emotional side and demonstrate the value for students, to encourage families to get on board. All this should show the diversity that the school has.
You also have to understand the market you are addressing. Just because you market a particular way to parents in Hong Kong doesn’t mean that’s the same way you market to families of colour. It’s important to build a relationship with these parents. The relationship cannot be established on the illusion or the perception that they are not wanted. How can marketing material say one thing and then the representative of the school say something else?
I started the Elite Mums Network in Ghana because I wanted to hear the types of conversations that mothers have about schools. Even the most powerful mothers in Ghana look at the messaging on school websites and social media platforms. At the forefront of every conversation is “there are no children of colour there”. I usually say that there are. The next question is: “So why are they not anywhere for us to see?”
“At the forefront of every conversation is there are no children of colour there.”
These parents are actually the buyer of the product that you are selling, which is your education and your school. What makes them want to come to the school? Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself….would I come to this school if I looked at them online? Can I see my child there? Would they have a place there? All these questions need to be answered. If the answers are not ones that add to an increase in student numbers then you need to think again.
I help schools around the world to become visible again by the right families, reshape their messages and train them to have a better understanding of these cultures. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, but my mission is simple to help schools become comfortable with being uncomfortable.