With Auckland’s ever-expanding population, marketing for roll growth is not something a large number of schools have as a priority at the moment. But, what of those schools with a declining roll? Or those that have a hanging legacy to try and cast aside? Getting students through the door and growing a school can, in some cases, be a real challenge. And it’s not just students, what about attracting high-quality teaching staff? Auckland is a prime example of an area that is crying out for teachers. The media is constantly full of articles sharing the stories of teachers who have left the metropolis for the regions. Whether it’s cost of living or simply trying to get onto the property ladder, some of New Zealand’s larger cities are losing teachers at an alarming rate.
As someone who visits a lot of schools, I often find myself wondering what each school’s point of difference is. With my ‘parent-of-a-child-who-is-just-about-to-start-school’ hat on, what is it that would make me send my son to your school? What I’m talking about is a school’s value proposition. In marketing terms, it is defined as ‘an innovation, service, or feature intended to make a company or product attractive to customers.’ In real-world terms, I’m asking to see not just what the school does very well, but also how it is different from other schools around it.
Now, please do not misunderstand me — I’m not looking to start a marketing war between schools with flying accusations of poaching one another’s cohorts. I’m simply wondering whether leaders who are responsible for enrolments and appointments have considered what it is that makes their school special. Of course, most of us value our teaching and learning environments. It’s what makes teaching in New Zealand such a pleasure, knowing that no two classrooms or schools are the same. We have the freedom to develop our own thinking, direction, and culture within our individual environments and at a wider school level. My question is: Has this been formatted into a ‘unique value proposition’?
“Also known as a unique selling proposition (USP), your UVP is a clear statement that describes the benefit of your offer, how you solve your customer’s needs and what distinguishes you from the competition. Your unique value proposition should appear prominently on your landing page and in every marketing campaign.” (Unbounce.com)
Whether it’s your extra-curricular options, your incredible inquiry model, and delivery plan, or sporting success, unfortunately, many prospective parents and employees start at the same place: Decile. With the upcoming system changes and transition to the MoE anonymous targeted funding initiative, or risk index, things are going to change. But, that is never going to extinguish any fires burning from previous negative associations and, until the new system is fully embedded, decile ratings (both past and present) will significantly influence people’s perceptions.
Having recently visited a school with my parent hat firmly fixed on, I left with as many wonderings as when I stepped inside the doors. I couldn’t shake the question, ‘what else?’ Everything I was shown was fine. There were opportunities for growth and learning, steps being taken towards modern learning practice, and dabbling in the ILE world. All was absolutely… fine. So, why couldn’t I shake the question? It’s simple really. Being okay isn’t okay. Teaching and learning under the ‘That’s-What-We’ve-Always-Done’ mentality is just never going to be okay. I don’t for one second think this is the case in the school I visited. I wholeheartedly believe they had innovation and powerful opportunities for engagement and empowerment happening within the school; I just couldn’t see it. Their website touched on it, their inquiry model certainly talked about empowering learners and self-exploration, but as a visitor to the school and prospective parent, it wasn’t in front of me. No matter what question I asked or how subtly I pushed, the school’s uniqueness didn’t shine through. And it made me wonder… Is this what visitors to the school see? Is that okay? To a parent outside of education, what was shown was similar in some ways to the education they received. Surely that wasn’t the school’s unique value proposition?
In the busy life of schools, the must-dos of governance and Ministry requirements are, at the very least, time-consuming. Little time is left for the ‘should dos’, and they are dealt with the best they can be. For example, we should be promoting teaching as inquiry and establishing strong relationships both within and across schools. We should be strengthening our repertoire of skills and letting the ‘pockets of promise’ shine through. But what about the ‘could dos?’ It’s here that schools have an opportunity to push beyond the norm and define themselves as genuine institutions of modern learning. After the charter has been submitted and the data has been analysed, many leaders have little time to engage in purposeful conversations around pushing the boundaries of education. This is by no means a criticism; just the reality of the incredibly high pressured life of a leader in education. So often I’ve seen the pendulum swing away from future-focused education towards governance and accountability. And, it’s here where facilitators and consultants like myself have an opportunity to help make a significant change. Our role is not to show schools the way. We don’t have the map. But we do have the paper with which leaders can draw their own and decide on just what it is that makes them special.
On seeking the advice of a very experienced and highly-regarded, forward-thinking principal recently, he shared his insights on the direction he felt schools were headed. So many of his colleagues and fellow leaders were so preoccupied with governance, property, and finance (their must-dos), that their ‘should-dos’ received just a fraction of their time. It left nothing for the big questions. Where were they going? Where did they see their school in 5, 10, or even 20 years time? How were they providing learners with purposeful, agentic learning and focusing on the skills sought by businesses and future employers? Were they focusing on the key competencies and values within The New Zealand Curriculum and promoting communication, organisation, and collaboration (see here for a 2016 article via Linkedin)? The list of questions was endless and all were very much in the wider, strategic direction space. I, like many of his colleagues, simply had no answer.
There are many great thinkers and edutainers out there. They enthrall us with their vision of the future and incredibly simple explanations of the most complex concepts. But, just how often does it transfer into genuine change? So, I direct my final comments to leaders who are asking the questions but simply don’t have the capacity to find the answers. Find your map. Collaboratively, creatively, and with the support of colleagues both within and outside of your organisation. Sometimes that means someone like me has the honour of coming along with you on your collective journey, and sometimes it’s just a case of finding the time to prioritise your could-dos. Whatever you choose, whatever it is that makes your school shine, sing it from every rooftop and do it with pride.
Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei, Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.