'Flight to the countryside gives independent schools a big opportunity'
Schools should make the most of the marketing opportunity offered by families moving to areas with lower living costs
The impact of Covid-19 on education across the globe will, no doubt, be analysed for years to come.
But if ever there was a time to look at marketing strategy, this must be it. There is a positive opportunity here for independent schools, if they are prepared and ready. This relates directly to the housing market. The stamp duty holiday and the probable legacy of many working remotely means that many families are taking stock of their homes and wondering whether this is a time to relocate.
In the vast majority of cases, this means moving out of traditionally more expensive city and suburban areas where living costs, house and car insurance and railway car parks add to the financial burden. Whilst many will be looking to get more for their money by moving to a rural setting, including space for home offices, others may, for the first time, have money to invest in private education.
Season tickets on the railway from Guildford to London cost about £4,000 annually, Bedford just over £6,000 and Brighton £4,500. Car parking at Bedford can cost over £50 a month with a season ticket. The savings made during lockdown will have shown many families that they are able to operate on a lower budget.
It has always been the case that estate agents have referred to schools in the details of properties that they are selling, especially at the higher end of the market, so building on and developing these contacts is essential. Many independent schools have used railway stations to advertise open days and to promote schools but this needs to be rethought now many workers have forgone the daily commute.
"The savings made during lockdown will have shown many families that they are able to operate on a lower budget."
Placing adverts in local glossy county magazines and similar, which are also used by estate agents, may be a good use of resources. Families going to a new area, perhaps visiting a local coffee shop where the magazines are often left for customers, may be surprised to see what local independent schools can offer, especially if they have not considered such schools previously.
Making the school attractive, and pitching the idea that it is within their financial reach, could be crucial in attracting new custom. Since it seems likely that uncertainty relating to the virus will continue well into the New Year, showcasing what schools were able to offer during the lockdown earlier in the year is key.
This is an area where, generally, maintained schools fell short compared with their independent counterparts and this has been well-documented in the press; wooing “first time” buyers with details as to what schools were able to provide during lockdown is something the independent sector should capitalise on.
"Pitching the idea that independent education is within their financial reach could be crucial in attracting new custom."
Additionally, how new arrangements have been put in place to safeguard the health of the pupils now they have returned to school will no doubt be uppermost in the minds of prospective parents. This may require a new “sub” prospectus to be generated to ensure that all relevant aspects are addressed. It could be that a separate prospectus or webpage could be dedicated to referrals from estate agents.
The use of social media is also key. Many rural communities have built very strong Facebook presence during the pandemic, allowing rapid sharing of information and many individuals use such routes to gain recommendations for local tradesmen etc. Someone new to an area, or considering moving, may well use such avenues to get a feel for a location and its schools. Having well-managed posts on such platforms could be a strong attraction. Fostering the support of existing parents to meet with prospective parents, to discuss the school within the community, could also be invaluable for those with little knowledge of a location.
None of this addresses the boarding option, or flexible boarding, which could be a new consideration as families develop differing working patterns, perhaps with some longer days, or less predictability once travel for work begins to grow again. The words of Roy T Bennett come to mind “… remember that every challenge — every adversity — contains within it the seeds of opportunity and growth.” The independent sector just needs to grab the opportunity with both hands.
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