By Stephen Bilboe, sales and marketing director, WCBS.
The pandemic has hit all aspects of education; in the past year we’ve seen about 30 UK independent schools close their doors permanently as a direct result of COVID-19. Many schools have had to give discounts on their fees, revenue from boarding and trips has been halted, and income has ultimately taken a hit.
Schools that have been the worst affected are typically smaller schools that have been struggling with admissions and reduced student numbers for a while. With school fees having risen by 3% and 4% on average over the last decade, an independent education is out of reach for many middle-class families. Therefore, for those schools that have struggled to successfully widen their catchment net – in some cases the hit to income has been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
With the move to remote learning the market has had to really focus on their value proposition; delivering value to parents and education to students, which on the whole, the schools have done brilliantly.
Adapting fast to protect reputation
When a parent is being charged thousands in fees, schools have had to deliver outstanding levels of teaching to warrant such an ask, especially when delivering to their students remotely, at home and not on campus.
All schools have had to shift to online learning and live lessons, and have adapted well to remote learning. The standard has been remarkable within Independent and International schools, where the stakes and expectation is even higher, what with the ask of fees.
Because of the reduction on fee income the pandemic has forced Independent schools to focus on their admissions process even more. Without the luxury of open days, they can’t just rely on a good telephone manner, a beautiful prospectus and families walking through the school gate. Schools in our market now have to firmly position and differentiate themselves to compete so that they’re attractive to parents and make sure that pupil numbers are coming through.
EdTech has remoulded today’s expectations
Most schools have an online learning platform today, but a lot of schools have had to shift to office 365 and Microsoft teams to deliver their lessons.
In terms of admissions, schools are focusing on Admissions CRMs. Instead of taking enquiries by phone from an admissions office, and logging details on a spreadsheet, Independent and International schools see the need for a more analytical and sophisticated approach by using automated emails and communications systems. They understand that to survive and thrive, their school must operate as a business.
Adoption of technology has increased massively, creating a focus on Cloud technologies, system efficiencies, and better user experiences.
Virtual tours are a new feature for many schools, where they haven’t been able to rely on inviting visitors. Schools have invested more into their website and online perception, admissions in the form of CRMs and any tool that can help them facilitate an online learning experience in the best possible way that justifies that fee income, has been high on their priority list.
Thinking commercially is paramount
Our market hasn’t been forced to be as commercially minded as they have been until now. Local Independent schools may have typically had a steady flow of pupil enrolment from their local catchment or wider afield through organic growth, but now there is greater competition. Fees have been rising steadily, but salary increases for the majority of families hasn’t kept pace – we are seeing Independent schools refining their focus to take more of a commercial view, with an ever greater focus on admissions and alumni.
From an analytical perspective, the likes of Boards of Governors, Headmasters and Directors of Admissions are all interested in what their enrolments are going to look like next year. If they’re going to succeed in moving forward, they need to know what their numbers are. Independent and International schools are not only interested in the revenue they’re going to get this year, but the revenue they’re going to see in the next five years, and ultimately the lifetime value.
One of the things we’ve seen from COVID-19 is a lot of hardship funds being raised, so where parents have struggled with their income over this challenging time, some schools that have strong alumni have been able to raise hardship funds to support other families that are trying to meet the needs of fees while income has been hit.
The future for of technology in Independent Education
The future of EdTech in the Independent and International school market will certainly be an interesting journey. We’ve seen consolidation in the market in the last few years with a lot of acquisitions taking place. I am intrigued to see what we get from that, whether it’s a one stop shop and consolidation of offerings, which will ultimately leave less choice. My view is that the best position for the market is for it to remain agnostic and allow schools to choose best of breed where necessary but through an “open” integrated solution.
With this forced adoption of online teaching and the relative success achieved, it will be interesting to see if more schools look to follow in Harrow School’s footsteps and launch an online school. Their online sixth form operates at a reduced rate and is more scalable and cost effective to operate. This may even be considered as an addition to or instead of an International sister school.
In terms of direction, data and insight will be crucial. Having products that are purpose built for the cloud (Cloud Native), providing that 10x better user experience that can utilise anonymised, aggregated data to provide pro-active engagement to deliver better student outcomes is really exciting.