In the old days, the "three Rs" of education were reading, writing, arithmetic. The recycling movement then took it on to focus on “reduce, re-use and recycle”. In the twenty-first century, we now have a new set of three Rs for independent schools: Recruitment, Retention and Referrals.

When I was in the US on a trip about a year ago, I was speaking to the head of a New York school and he said his time was totally focused on recruitment and fundraising, with a small bit of time left over for governance and safeguarding. Gone were his days of teaching lessons, an academic focus and discipline, that was left in the care of his academic and pastoral deputies.

"US schools see recruitment, retention and referrals as central to their operations."

I was impressed with the schools I visited in the US whose marketing and fundraising departments and schools were totally focused on this part of the business of education. One school had 20 members of the marketing, admissions and fundraising team. They even had a visit co-ordinator for admissions. Marketing and fundraising were an integral part of the educational focus of the schools I visited. Plaques, donor walls, scholar boards and alumni events images were everywhere, a daily reminder to all staff how much a large part these elements play in the continued running and success of the schools. Fundraising is marketing after all.

The US has always been ahead with regard to fundraising and marketing and this was very prominent within the schools I visited. It correlates to the presentations and reports I have read over the years on retention: all written by US schools advisers and staff. They see the business of recruitment, retention and referrals as central to their schools and operations.

What do we have to learn in the UK with regard to the three Rs? Here are my thoughts in no particular order:

Referrals: whether from alumni, current parents or the website, not all schools are absolutely on it with regard to care and follow-ups. Every referral could be a potential customer and they should all be treated as such – even if they don’t work out, then it informs marketing with regard to future expenditure. There is a wonderful phrase from a customer service guru of mine that states: “Show up early, stay late, do your best, always say thank you, give people more than they expect and follow up”.

"You cannot really overdo follow up."

Follow up is key. This is how you win people over your competition. I remember a customer saying to me a few years ago, that the only reason they chose my school for his daughter was because the team followed up with him, no one else did, and that it made him feel we cared. Tony Blair may have said “Education, Education, Education”. I say “Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up.”

You cannot really overdo it. I would rather a marketing lead said, “Thanks for all the follow ups, but I will get back to you when I have made a decision”, rather than, “Well if you had followed up, I might have chosen you over xxx school.”

Recruitment: most schools have this pretty much covered with regard to visits and admissions, although some schools are still a little complacent about customer service and the need to focus on the customer/parent. Gone are the days when Mr and Mrs Smith left little Johnny at the school gate and picked him up three months later, having nothing to do with his schooling. Mr and Mrs Smith want value for money and will ensure they get it for little Johnny. I do not blame them either as school fees are eye-wateringly high and have crept over the £40,000 barrier in recent years. Great customer service is key to getting and keeping customers, which leads me onto my final “R”.

"Current customers are also your brand ambassadors."

Retention: this area is pretty much non-existent in schools as an activity. Generally, no one knows who is responsible. Is it marketing, because they are good at sales and customers, or teaching staff because the pupil is “current” and because the experience in school is now the indicator and teachers are a big part of this? Retention is critical. Do you know that it costs seven times more to recruit than retain customers?

Current customers are also your brand ambassadors. My suggestion is twofold: recruit a “Retention Champion” on the SLT to manage this important area and then create a tracking sheet for tutors and pastoral staff to note actions as and when needed and to monitor conversations and plans. It is important that pupils brought into the bucket do not fall out the bottom. This is not great for motivating the sales teams (probably why marketing staff sometimes deal with retention) and for the schoo’ls ethos if your school community changes in a large way every year which does not create continuity.

So, schools have to change their mentality from not just being schools but also being businesses and changing their focus from not just reading, writing and arithmetic but looking towards recruitment, referrals and retention.