In these thrifty times, let’s spare a thought for the local Comprehensive, usually fairly well protected from the commercial world and its associated ups and downs. But not this time. Arguably the education industry is going through a period of even greater change than any other sector with more ground breaking government initiatives than ever before. The pace of imposed change has been electric with Heads having to fill in the gaps and manage the day to day while Central Government finishes what it started with the new education policies and while Local Government works out what this means for them. For schools, very little remains certain. Teacher’s employers, Union memberships, school structures, the National Curriculum, school ownership, teacher’s pensions…. absolutely nothing is sacred. And all this in what is traditionally one of the best protected, most secure roles out there.
Local Authorities have acted as a service provider and safety net for the vast majority of state schools for decades but are now losing their grip as more and more Heads seek independence through Academy status with its promises of greater budgetary control and more money to play with. The Authorities’ input into running and providing services to schools is diminishing fast and as more schools turn away from them, their income will drop, so their level of service will have to fall accordingly. As a result, more schools will turn away from them… the archetypal slippery slope!
This freedom will see schools procuring their own services, hopeful to get a better deal from the private sector than that provided by the Local Authority. Heads will need to privately source everything from solicitors, cleaners, caterers and counsellors to recruitment, staff training, payroll, HR, PR and crisis management services… you name it. For the Local Authority staff of course this is very bad news, and we’ve all read the headlines and seen the stats. But for local solicitors, cleaners and caterers…, potentially very good news! Perhaps every cloud does after all have a silver lining as this presents a huge opportunity, at last something for the small business to be excited about.
But it’s not just local suppliers who are getting excited. The big boys are on the ball, with the likes of Deloitte, Capita and Serco amongst many others coming out to play with great offers to plug this newly formed gap in the market, wholesale.
So suddenly, schools are featuring in marketing plans across the country. Hot prospects. But those who have had anything to do with marketing to schools know that the usual rules of B2B engagement don’t apply, so beware how you court this opportunity. During a recent workshop with Heads, I was told (even in the current climate) “If I see a brochure from a corporate and a brochure from a charity offering the same thing, even if the charity is more expensive, I’ll go with the charity every time”. And today in a similar workshop, “We want to work with the providers who can’t afford the big glossy brochures”. Clearly values and ethics take precedent over price, even when budgets are going backwards and a strong, established brand is not always appreciated.
Schools are quite unique and certainly don’t fit the usual B2B marketing model. Fax-back forms (remember those?) are still posted into schools and religiously faxed back as a popular response mechanism in direct mail campaigns. If schools get the slightest sniff of the hard sell, they run a mile. Opening a conversation with key decision makers in a school is notoriously difficult with school office staff protecting their team from ruthless telesales agents with the ferocity only matched by doctor’s receptionists. But once you have proved yourself, they are some of the most loyal customers out there, rarely changing suppliers once they have built up a relationship and a track record, a pleasure to do business with.
So, do these new Academies present an opportunity for a little light in otherwise dark times? Yes, absolutely and this will only increase as more and more schools convert in the next few years. But don’t turn your back on Local Authorities either because this transition won’t happen overnight. With so many cuts to be made, they need more external support than ever, particularly if you can evidence same year cost savings as a return on their investment.
At Cube4 Marketing, we are advising a number of clients in the education sector how to make the most of this changing world of schools marketing and the new opportunity it creates. Market insights are essential if you are to capitalise on this opportunity, to the benefit of schools and your business. Get it wrong and it is just another big black hole to tip your marketing spend into.