A lifetime in education teaches you many things, but one of the most important is that parents are essentially the same, wherever in the world they are... they want the best for their children.

And the reason they are even considering sending their children to your school is because they think that it might offer them the best education and best life chances possible. What they mean by “the best possible”, however, varies from parent to parent, and the most savvy schools know now, better than ever before, that they have to take time to understand the specific motivations of every parent.

Making assumptions in advance that the school knows best what each parent wants, or indeed what is right for each child, is out-dated in this world of personalised approaches and a focus on the development of the individual. Schools need to take time to understand children and their parents, and work out how best to respond to them and serve their needs.

"Most parents value a well-rounded education which draws out individuality"

This said, there are broad themes underpinning parental choices of schools – parents generally want their children to be happy and enjoy school, which is why the children themselves have become so involved in the decision-making process. Moreover, most parents want their children to succeed academically (although, some care less about this than others). Most parents also value a well-rounded education which draws out individuality, and this is a message which is percolating worldwide, hence the attraction of a ‘British education’, underpinned by liberal Western values and a belief in releasing the inner creativity of each child.

Many parents see school as an opportunity for their children to build friendships and social networks, and for most parents, the choice of school is a practical solution to ensure the right balance (which varies from family to family) of having a good education but also spending at home, wherever that may be.

However, international parents who are thinking about choosing UK schools also commonly have a range of additional motivations or perspectives from those of UK-based parents.

Admissions departments – and, indeed, all staff in school – will want to be attuned to these if they are keen to “capture” these parents, and respond to the needs of each new student. Broadly, these additional motivations fall into three main categories:

1. Multi-linguists

An intense desire (for non-native speakers of English) to ensure that their child is able to become fluent in English. English is undeniably the lingua franca of the world – and a mastery of English is an enormous advantage for students as they move into the world of work and have, therefore, global opportunities. English opens doors, and this is one of the prime reasons parents want to send their children to the UK. Rather than seeing the requirement to provide English language learning as a “necessary evil”, or an irritation, as the international student is “not good enough” in English – a deficit model – schools need to rethink their approach if they are to attract international parents, who are becoming increasingly savvy about the needs of their children. International students are developing the ability to become bilingual, if not multi-lingual, and schools would do well to reflect on whether they admire and support this English language need as well as they could. Home students could, in fact, learn a lot from this multi-lingual, multi-cultural education – especially if they too want to have access to the same global opportunities later in life.

2. Life beyond school

A highly developed desire for their child to gain entry into a well-regarded UK or US university. The stakes are often higher for parents of students who live and work in different cultures – they are making larger sacrifices in sending their children away to school (higher costs of travel, few chances to see their children and have family time), and they are often more acutely aware than many UK-based parents of the breadth of opportunity that lies beyond the borders of the UK.

They know, too, that global quality matters, which is why they will often be attracted to well-known “names” of schools; as far as higher education is concerned, there are world-leading universities across the world, but many of these are clustered in the UK and US; this is a real attraction to international parents. This means, of course, that international parents want to hear ambition on the part of the school regarding destinations post-18.

"International parents want to be certain that the school will ensure that their child is successful."

This can sit somewhat at odds with the British caution and realistic understanding that not all universities will be right for each child, and so schools have something to offer parents in this respect, spelling out the advantages of students making the right personal choice, and – even better – highlighting the successful careers to which their students go on to after university.

International parents want to be as certain as possible that the school will absolutely ensure that their child is successful in later life, and schools can shape this dialogue if they understand this and respond robustly and positively. Publishing data on university graduates and later career success of former students, of course, requires a well-developed alumni strategy and information-gathering processes in school... but successful admissions depend ultimately on the success of the school, and therefore on many aspects of the school being aligned. A challenge to admissions departments is to step up to the plate, and not to be afraid of helping to drive whole school strategy.

3. Safety matters

A fundamental need for their child to be safe and secure, which is all the more pronounced in these times of coronavirus. This is true of all parents, but the importance is heightened when there are so many extra elements involved for their children – distance from home (which often involves several legs of travel by themselves), different time zones (which can make communication with parents harder), and a longer time spent away from home (which can lead to loneliness).

Also important, although not always as well-articulated, can be cultural differences, which can lead to isolation simply because the child does not feel understood, or does not know exactly what is expected (including speaking up – which is increasingly firmly embedded in British culture, but not necessarily in others). Schools pride themselves on keeping their children safe, of course, although – again, in that curious British way we have of not wanting to draw attention to things we do well, in case people start to think the opposite, schools perhaps do not always highlight sufficiently what a safe country the UK is, and how the schools protect their children from harm, both inside the school and beyond its gates.

"Schools can afford to shout more loudly about how they keep their students safe."

Guardianship is an important aspect of safeguarding outside term-time (and, indeed, when things go wrong during term), and while many schools have very clear guardianship policies, drawing on the best practice required by the national accrediting body for UK guardians, AEGIS (part of the BSA partnership, and supported by William Clarence Education), this can be a gap that schools need to plug (and do so swiftly, as a safeguarding issue outside school will rebound on the school itself).

With strong guardianship protocols in place, robust safeguarding practices and every aspect of a student’s stay and travel in the UK carefully planned, schools can afford to shout much more loudly about how they keep their students safe, and turn it into a feature to attract international parents.

4. A relationship

All parents want to know how their child is faring at school, and schools which have excellent communication protocols with parents will want to highlight these; schools which don’t have these protocols will want to shape up – has your school, for example, set up regular progress calls to parents, with an interpreter? Does the head make a point of meeting with current parents as well as prospective parents when she or he travels? Are school reports offered with a translation? Does the school employ a trusted third party to find out from international parents what they really want from the school (bearing in mind that in many cultures – including still in the UK – direct criticism of institutions is not easy for parents)?

Fundamentally, international parents want to feel wanted and cherished, and to feel confident that their children will be nurtured and given every chance, both at school and in the world beyond. For schools to bring these parents to them, they need to ensure that international students are truly valued in school; and many, many schools do not do this as well as they imagine. A good, hard, evaluative look at this, possibly with external eyes, can make an enormous difference to how schools operate, and will lay strong foundations for future success in attracting students.

Then, of course, it all comes down to communication and messaging, and extending the reach of the message – and nothing beats taking a critical look at what your marketing materials are actually communicating, from the perspective of an international parent and their needs. Taking time to step back and evaluate is always worth the investment of energy, as it can (and will) identify shifts in direction which will make all the difference to schools looking to attract international students.

And finally – a message to admissions departments who worry about whether they can have the impact on whole school practices that is needed to make some of these shifts: be bold! After all, who else in the school has as clear a view as the admissions department of the school’s actual future students, their particular perspectives and their pressing needs?