Last Thursday I spoke at the ISA Proprietors Conference 2016 about our independent “Missing Million” research. It is undoubtedly my favourite piece of MTM research as it not only unpicks and evaluates the reach of existing school marketing campaigns but also investigates the drivers for first time buyers of independent education. With more competition than ever before, both in the UK and internationally, it is important to have a well planned and executed school marketing campaign, and successful marketing campaigns are always based on quantifiable data. The more information you have about the perception and attitudes towards your school in your market, the easier it is to engage with your target audience.

Clearly there are a substantial amount of families in the UK who do not have the income to afford an independent education but as a result of our research MTM can confidently estimate that there are 1.5 million affluent families in the UK who can afford an independent education but who currently choose not send their child to a private school.

What did we discover from our research?

  1. That 33% of participants in our survey did not support independent education. This does not mean that they are lost as a market altogether rather that they represent a significant marketing challenge – people can change their mind and this was further emphasised by the 17% of participants that changed their minds when they became parents.
  2. That around 13% of respondents in our sample knew nothing of independent schools in their local area and whilst almost half of these parents came from the lowest income bands, almost a quarter were living in £80k + households!
  3. That some of the key marketing messages and true USPS of an independent education still aren’t getting through with academic education and small class sizes still topping the table as the only perceived benefits of an independent education for most families. A schools ability to meet a childs needs, the standard of discipline and the extra curricular opportunities were rated much lower. Unfortunate as these are the USPs that will set you apart from your state and grammar equivalents.
  4. That a good local reputation and strong word of mouth recommendation are still critical in encouraging parents to consider and possibly go on to visit a school. Parents still find out about schools using the 3 rs REPUTATION RECOMMENDATION AND REPORTS – interestingly advertising and social media were at the bottom end of the scale as research sources for the families in our survey.
  5. That the dominant reasons for considering an independent education but not going on to visit a school were cost and satisfaction with the state alternative. These are a really important set of parents who are positively inclined, who did the research but who then decided that there was nothing in the offerings to convince them through the school gates.
  6. That 20% of those families who went on to visit an independent school did not go on to enrol specifically stating that what they experienced did not appear any better than the state alternative. 

What is putting affluent first time buyers off independent education?

The dominant reason why an independent education was not chosen by families is satisfaction with local state schools. Also only a third of families in our research felt that independent schools offered value for money and around a quarter did not think they were right for their child or that their child might not fit in.

What valuable marketing lessons can be learned from this research?

Marketing schools is different to any other industry. Education is not only a legal requirement, but made free for every child until the age of 16. How you market your school can be the difference between building a relationship that lasts for decades or a family choosing the school down the road. These days marketing is not just about prospectuses and open days, it also encompasses your target demographic and how best to reach them.

What can marketing and admissions departments do to engage first time buyers of independent education?

  1. Visit ALL of the schools in your local area not just other independent schools – what are they doing better than you and where is future investment focused? Attend away support fixtures, go to their events and go to the state school open days. If you feel uncomfortable doing this yourself recruit a mystery shopping service.
  2. Focus your messaging on your USPs. Focus on pastoral care, mental health well being, nurture and personal individual development. Messaging related to these areas will always strike a chord with every parent regardless of affluence.
  3. Look just outside catchments where good state schools are popular and target advertising where bright aspirational families might just be missing out. Do you even know how well known you are in these areas?
  4. Research your current parent body to find out what you do well. Talk to the teaching staff and departments to find out what extra things they do that you may not be aware of and use these in your advertising. 
  5. Develop a feeder school strategy – and make sure you see it through. Plan events – achievement awards, summer fetes, sporting activities, science fairs, creative writing workshops – all great excuses to show people the delights and benefits of your school but yet so many marketing people get this wrong. Instead of going to state schools and telling them what you can offer ask them what they think you can offer or what they need. It might not be them using your facilities but you bringing expertise into their school or sharing something that you don’t have.  Start thinking outside the box and don’t just get the head networking in the community get your best selling teachers too.
  6. Use stories about “normal” kids who have gone on to achieve as part of your marketing strategy. Move away from reinforcing traditional stereotypes. Use broad appeal. Around a quarter of the Missing Million do not think that independent schools are right for their child or that their child might not fit in. Your alumni can and should be one of your greatest marketing tools.
  7. Influence first time buyers perceptions of cost and value for money. Focus on the quality of teaching, individual attention (not small class sizes), high staffing ratios, better exam results, opportunities for accessing a great university, and for forging a sustainable future career with a higher starting salary. Be transparent about costs and don’t be frightened to shout about fees in a price sensitive market. Itemisation does not make tuition look reasonable. Don’t bury the fees within the website under the misguided belief that people will search for them, fall in love with the school then think that the fees are reasonable, often first time buyers will jump on the site, can’t find how much it costs and leave the site within minutes if not seconds. Make the fee page one of the easiest to understand.
  8. Ask are you marketing your bursaries effectively in the right areas?
  9. Ask how often are your marketing staff in the staff common room and how are they communicating what is happening in admissions and marketing to the academic staff? Engaging every member of staff in the marketing process is crucial. They must realise their impact on the marketing, communication and promotion of the school brand. Happy parents and pupils are your best ambassadors and ALL members of staff (from the groundskeeper through to the top of the chain) need to understand and engage with the importance of their role in this. Do everything you can to market your school internally and undertake regular surveys just to make sure you are ahead of the game in terms of perception and satisfaction.
  10. Use social media as a living prospectus for your school. It’s interactive it’s lively it’s real time and it’s constantly updated showing your school never stands still showcasing the very best moments.
  11. Log all data. It will help you personalise each families introduction to the school and will increase conversions. Implement a 30 day follow up plan with a checklist and if conversion seems to drop at a specific point request feedback and ask specific questions. The checklist can also help you deal with possible barriers to purchase. Even if the parent is no longer interested in the school, it is invaluable to be able to find out why.
  12. Go one step further and audit and improve tours and visits regularly – what has worked for twenty years may not be working now, visit your competition, get feedback after every visit and improve.
  13. Ask the question are pupil guides the best way? Yes if they are good no if they are not trained or selling the school in the right light.
  14. Send a “what to expect on your visit” pack prior to any tours etc. to put first time buyers at ease.
  15. Ask do teaching staff know what to do if families visit the classroom as part of a tour? Don’t assume they do. Give them inset training on how to play their part and help you showcase your best facilities.
  16. Make visitors feel special. For every child increase personalisation, tailor every moment and move away from a one size fits all approach.

But don’t make it harder for yourself!

Marketing theory states that it is usually more cost effective to retain interested buyers than to recruit new ones. Our work with schools throughout the UK has shown the most significant loss of first time buyers occurs at the top of the chain, between visiting and buying, so this must be addressed. By auditing your offering and making simple changes there will be immediate results.


Even if a family is not in a financial position to commit to using you now who is too say what is around the corner – your school name and key messages should be known throughout the community. Increasing awareness with positively inclined families WILL translate into increased enquiries – not just from traditional buyers. You need to think laterally about ways to increase awareness amongst the reasonably affluent families in your area who do not consider independent schools at the moment.

FACT: There are affluent non-buyers and first time buyers out there.

If you want to catch them, don’t just do what you have always done, be creative. Know your potential customers and make the options attractive by presenting them appropriately so they are not inadvertently put off. Buyers and non buyers want the same for their children. Changing perceptions and preconceived ideas about independent education should be our priority.

If you would like a copy of our Missing Million research or would like an informal chat about any of our market research services please email