By Stephen Holmes, CIS Affiliated Consultant, School Reputation Management
Reputation management is crucial for international schools at all points on their compass, whether a school is thriving, beginning or developing. Right now, benchmarking and managing a school’s reputation has become even more critical for some as they face a myriad of risks, some associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and others that were already building.
I’ve outlined some of the risks, responses, how benchmarking can work, plus recent examples from schools completing a benchmarking process.
The risks might include
- lower enrolment
- staffing issues as families and staff return to their home countries
- budget cuts/income drops
- adherence to stricter governmental guidelines
- potentially profound shifts in geo-political alliances and
- commercial supply chain adjustments that will disrupt recruitment composition and complicate identity issues for international schools.
These changed conditions and experiences for international schools necessitate focused responses, including:
- Ensuring that factors claimed as strengths by a school are commensurate with parents’ highest expectations—this exercise will be paramount to substantiate value for money.
- A sharpening in identity (positioning) of international schools to distinguish from the ‘pack’ (alternative schools). This will need to start with a review of Vision and Mission Statements where there is a general sameness in many international schools.
- Subsequently, marketing messages put out by schools need to be reviewed and strengthened considerably—many are not nearly impactful enough on parent choice.
- Marketing practices in international schools will need to mature. In particular, emphasis on retention, not just recruitment. Of course, recruitment and retention should be understood as interdependent.
- The school will need to extend marketing to the softer side with robust assessments and dedicated strategies for word-of-mouth and referral, rarely formally understood.
- Student and parent voice will need to be enhanced in international schools with specific barometers being taken of school performance from the public eye.
- Parents will want claims about schools supplemented with more factual and not generic or woolly evidence.
What we’re looking for is a working framework that captures these diverse and confronting challenges for international schools going forward. That’s exactly where schools should direct their attention, towards reputation management.
While most international schools now have in place measurements (satisfaction surveys etc.), rarely do they incorporate a serious measure or management of reputation. What could be more important now than a baseline measure of reputation for improvement and responsive action in these uncertain times?
"Our many years of experience partnering with schools across the globe on their self-improvement journey has enabled us to understand the vital importance of a school’s guiding statements as the foundation of a school’s identity and how the living of the mission, vision and values enable a school to build its reputation. The first driver of the CIS International Accreditation process is all about the purpose and direction of the school and how effectively the school delivers on its promises embodied in those guiding statements. A school’s integrity is measured in terms of what they do as well as what they say and this is a foundational element of the CIS accreditation process."—Carole Denny, CIS Associate Director of School & Evaluation
Research and case studies
All those reading this in an international school will surely know of the centrality of reputation to successful recruitment and retention. Our many years of research at The 5Rs Partnership with schools internationally conclude that they have at their hands no more important asset than their reputation. Yet there has not been a robust approach for schools to measure and benchmark reputation.
Four CIS schools in Asia have just undertaken work to assess and benchmark their reputation as they seek not only to endure through these unprecedented times but to grow and position compellingly for the future.
The schools used ‘The School Reputation Assessor’ tool that I designed and developed together with these major steps in the reputation assessment process:
- Phase 1: What is being communicated (espoused) by the school as reputation?
- Phase 2: Staff, parents, students, and recent alumni perception of reputation.
- Phase 3: Compare and contrast results between audiences and schools.
- Phase 4: Individual School Reputation Action Report priorities for action, and benchmarking to other schools who have completed ‘The Reputation Assessor’.
Through the above, the project delivered:
- Evaluation and benchmarking of opinions of school reputation and surfacing of evidence underpinning those perceptions.
- A basis for each school to align and close gaps between what the schools say in marketing (messages, credentials, etc.) and what audiences think they actually do.
- Up to date evidence deployments to build reputation, and benchmark against other schools.
- Steps to enhance marketing and communications, word of mouth and referral.
Ten trends we discovered
Our study revealed that reputation is a unique and powerful concept in the minds of those in international school communities and that it is under-managed by schools. From our reputation assessment for each school, we identified both critical strengths for each audience (reputation factors of highest important and perceived as strengths of the school) and critical weaknesses (reputation factors of highest importance and perceived as weaknesses of the school).
Top 10 trends that emerged from the application of ‘The School Reputation Assessor’ across the schools:
- Parents and students often had quite divergent opinions about their school’s reputation. The student voice may be currently underrepresented for reputational advancement in schools.
- Parents appreciated the opportunity to give their perception of what is important in reputation of the schools—for most, it was the first time that they had been asked about the school reputation itself.
- The schools assessed are often not seen to be high in demand by their parents—other competing schools are seen to be better in many aspects (akin to a sense that the grass must be greener on the other side!) This does not bode well for word-of-mouth and referral. Personalised communication to current parents that their specific expectations are in focus and being addressed is now critical.
- There was limited engagement between schools and their alumni as a professional network across all schools assessed. Yet parents and students want to know more about alumni and their progression (e.g. university entrances, career paths, etc.). Alumni relations is not being viewed as it could be—both a longterm affinity/reputation and a student recruitment activity.
- This study found that Vision and Mission statements are not meaningful to most parents or students and do not set up the schools for a strong identity. Many case studies show that sustainable success often starts with creating a strong sense of self and purpose and is the basis to position strongly. Related, the study showed staff members often feel unheard in terms of input to school identity decisions.
- Across the schools assessed, people were typically unable to identify a single aspect the school is best known for or is best at. They did not point to a tangible strength or ambition as such which could be tagged to or become synonymous in practical terms with the school (for example, a single word or a concept that a school be genuinely known by). Identity is best developed through a narrow and deep set of attributes.
- Staff often gave a lower perception of the schools’ reputation than did other audiences (parents, students, alumni). The ramifications for word-of-mouth are self-evident. Advocacy building and awareness among staff should be an integral part of the staff journey, starting at recruitment/induction.
- There needs to be stronger internal communication between staff as many staff members often do not adequately understand the strategic direction/priorities of the school (they are not communicated effectively from Senior Leadership teams). Alignment of staff and management culture is a precondition for a strong and engaging school reputation.
- Parents liked to see evidence that their school is ‘on the move’ and that new and important activity is on the horizon. Future orientation with creative ideas and scenarios conveyed to build an even better reputation for a school is typically very well received in reputational terms.
- Intrinsic qualities like staff, pedagogy, and curriculum do not play the formative part that they should in the schools’ reputation ‘capital’. Through centre-staging these, schools have the opportunity to build a reputation that is both intrinsic to the worth of a school and immensely important to parent/student choice and retention.
"The whole process of looking at critical strengths and areas for development within a school in the reputation-building process described by Stephen aligns perfectly with the school improvement process that is CIS International Accreditation. CIS schools are schools that are on the move, as Stephen describes it, they are schools that are aspirational and wholly committed to a growth mindset, schools that want to be outstanding in terms of excellence as well as in terms of standing out from the crowd. The fourth driver of the CIS accreditation process is global citizenship and when one considers how third parties may perceive a school, that school’s outreach is often one of the more notable elements that affects public goodwill and affinity towards the school. The expectation that CIS accredited schools interact with, and contribute positively to, the local and global community would naturally help build a school’s reputation although that is clearly not the goal or purpose of that outreach. However, parents will often comment on school accreditation visits that their choice of a particular school for their child was influenced positively by the school’s commitment to the development of global citizenship and actions taken by members of the school in the wider community. And what a wonderful reputation to have as a school, one that is founded on service and action."—Carole Denny, CIS Associate Director of School & Evaluation
The 5Rs Partnership is shortly commencing reputation assessments with other international schools to extend the benchmarking value of assessing school reputation at this timely point, including gathering data on perceptions of each school’s response to COVID-19 and impact on their reputation. Please contact Dr Stephen Holmes at email@example.com for further details.
Dr Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation) is a long standing member of the CIS Affiliated Consultant Network. Stephen is the Founder and Principal of The 5Rs Partnership (www.5rspartnership.com), in Singapore, a global consultancy specifically for schools and universities in strategy, marketing, and reputation management, established in 2004.