Leveraging pandemic fallout through marketing and public relations

Alison Taylor, managing director of Conscious Communications, says independent schools have an opportunity to reach families previously overlooked

Everyday life has been turned upside down across the world this year and educators are seeing the impact of this in so many, often unexpected, ways. While there have undoubtedly been many challenges to overcome, the balance of what has happened in education as a result of the pandemic has begun to play out in favour of independent schools for a variety of reasons.

One of the most compelling of these reasons is the clear evidence that independent schools have been well equipped and able to rise to the challenge of remote and blended learning for their students.

So, while other schools may have struggled, understandably, to maintain levels of teaching and learning during lockdown – maybe due to limited technological expertise and equipment, staff capacity for preparing and delivering online lessons, safeguarding issues, and challenges with student access and engagement, most independent schools managed to transition to a full timetable of remote lessons, with comparative ease (not to downplay the considerable amount of extra hard work that went into preparation).

Research from the London School of Economics released on BBC Panorama shows that 74% of independent school students had a full timetable during lockdown, compared with only 38% of state school students; around 2.5 million children had no schooling or tutoring at all. The immediate and long-term benefit of this for students is unquestionable – they will not have ‘lost’ a term of learning.

The less obvious benefit has been for parents and guardians who were able to continue working as normal, even if at home, without the trials and tribulations of juggling home schooling. I have heard parents exclaim that, while they know they’re fortunate to be able to afford school fees, it has been ‘worth every penny’ to have their children in private school this year.

Very sadly, evidence shows that the pandemic has had its most devastating impact on more deprived communities across the country. It follows that the schools within these areas, which are likely to be state schools, will have had more positive cases of coronavirus than those in more affluent areas and these schools will have seen more disruption to their students’ education.

So, families that are anxious to maintain the standard of education their children are receiving during the pandemic, and who may not have previously considered private education, may now find this option increasingly attractive.

Impact of the pandemic

The biggest impact the pandemic has had on education across the globe is the total breakdown of the usual examination seasons. The by-products of this are that trust in grades is diminished and parents will no longer have league tables to reference as an indicator of a school’s academic standing – not that I would ever advocate using league tables to determine suitability of a school but we all know that parents do refer to them.

So, with much of the future now uncertain or unknown, how can schools leverage the knowledge that parents value the ability of independent schools to be flexible, adaptable and resilient in their response to crisis situations, and to prioritise children’s education, in their public relations and marketing activities?

Using the authentic voices of students and parents who have experienced the benefits of the unique offer their choice of independent school has provided during the recent turbulence can be very powerful and compelling – videos featuring students and showcasing the campus will offer prospective families a window on the school, its facilities, culture and more.

The extensive use of Zoom, Teams and other online meeting platforms, with all their inherent connectivity issues, has helped to promote acceptance of videos with a homemade feel, and this means that schools can create valuable video assets at a fraction of the cost previously invested.

Research from Influencer Marketing Hub shows that online video content continues to increase in popularity, and it is forecast that by 2022, around 82% of all online content will be video – schools can take advantage of this trend to reach new groups of prospective parents.

Change in lifestyle

There are two further anomalies we are seeing in the UK as a result of the pandemic which play into independent schools’ hands. Firstly, many families have found themselves unexpectedly with new levels of freedom in terms of where they live and how they work.

People who have been tied to a city commute or who have travelled widely and often for work have started to enjoy new, freer lifestyles. House prices have fallen and we are seeing more homeowners selling their town houses and moving their families and home offices to the countryside – Rightmove reported a doubling of searches for homes in small towns and villages as city dwellers contemplate moving.

The opportunity to target middle-class, hard-working families, who would have gravitated towards state schools in the past, is real

So, those city-based families who may have been attracted by, but not able to afford, boarding school in the countryside for their child(ren), now have the flexibility to move to be nearer to a school of their choice, where their children can attend as day students.

Secondly, it is true that families that haven’t felt a direct negative impact of Covid-19 on their jobs and industries have found themselves with a considerable amount more disposable income. The percentage of disposable income saved during 2020 rose from 9.6% to 29.1%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This spike is due to the closing down of large parts of the economy, as well as savings on holidays and on the cost of commuting. With more flexibility around location and an increase in disposable income, private education is now a realistic option for many more families in the UK. Couple these facts with the knowledge that choosing the right school for your child(ren) is the most important and fraught decision many parents will ever make and we can begin to see how and why the market is changing.

Emerging markets

The issues and challenges of Brexit for independent schools, particularly those with boarding facilities, are still very real, though, although they may have appeared to be overshadowed by the disruption of the pandemic. While the long-term impact of Brexit on the overseas student market has yet to be seen, I think that schools can help themselves mitigate this by leveraging the emerging opportunities in the home market, identified above.

For independent schools which have historically looked overseas and to HNW (high net worth) families during recruitment season, the market is looking more open and the opportunity to target middle-class, hard-working families, who would have gravitated towards state schools in the past, is real.

These families will be interested in the certainty of continued education during all circumstances; the quality of extra-curricular and enrichment activities; and the space, freedom and safety against infection of large, leafy school grounds.

So, now is the time to review messages, targeting and channels for communication to reach those families previously overlooked in marketing strategies.

For example, why not engage with estate agents and home developers to ensure they have compelling school information to provide to families looking to relocate within the UK as well as those from overseas?

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