Letting them down gently….communicating bad news

At this time of year, many independent schools are busy processing assessing, examining and interviewing prospective pupils (and often parents) for places for the coming  year.

For some, there will be good news to come and schools are getting much better at communicating offers in a personal and warm way. Research I have undertaken with parents indicates that the offer letter, whilst not a deal-breaker, can play an important role in the mind of an undecided parent.

But what about those who are not lucky enough to be offered a place? Schools need to communicate this bad (and sometimes unexpected) news carefully, with due thought not only for the family concerned but also their reputation within the local community.

Last week, a friend forwarded me an email she had received from a school. They had assessed her younger child but had unfortunately not offered a place. Her older child is on the waiting list. She replied to the rejection letter to find out whether her younger child was even on the waiting list (no information had been provided) and, if so, if the school thought there might be places for her children in the future, given there is often some movement in the weeks after offers go out.The school was absolutely their first choice, but they had other offers to consider, so wanted to be sure where they stood. It was a carefully thought out, polite letter to the Head. The response from the school, in stark contrast, was a standard, impersonal and quite rude sentence via email. Not even a Dear Mr and Mrs, let alone reference to her children by name.

In a world where customer service is now scrutinised, criticised or praised across social media, let alone at dinner parties, you want everyone you come into contact with to say nice things about you, regardless of the outcome of their application. The ramifications of those kind of emails could extend far beyond the disappointment caused to one family. My friend certainly feels far less pre-disposed towards the school she once raved about and whilst she accepts it was possibly not the right school for her children, she is now less likely to recommend it to others than if they had let her down in a more thoughtful way. An even more aggrieved parent may have forwarded the email on to friends, or shared it to Facebook or with Twitter, copying the school in. This is the danger now of not thinking all of your communications through as even your ‘private’ ones may not stay private for long.

So, as your Admissions department plans and writes those rejection letters, think not only about how you would feel as the parent and the child receiving it but also how you want them to feel about you and your school in the future. No one likes bad news, but it it is given in a sympathetic way the blow is more likely to be softened and your reputation remain intact.

Tatler’s Guide to State Schools. What does it mean for the independent sector?

Tatler have just published their third annual guide to the top State Schools, with the promise to readers that the best education needn’t be the most expensive…. except for the fact you will pay a property premium, possibly of 130%, to be able to afford a house close enough to guarantee a place at one of the schools they feature.

Given most Tatler readers are probably more comfortable with the private sector, should independent schools be worried about their target parents flirting with the maintained sector?

Yes, I think they should. The magazine have obviously identified a demand among readers for state education and whilst media reports about the Guide suggest buying a house in catchment for one of these schools could cost the same as privately educating one child, it is considerably cheaper than educating two or three children and one that is more likely to give you a guaranteed (and faster) return on your investment. And with fees at independent schools rising faster than earnings for many years now, parents deciding to go down this route will certainly not find themselves alone.

Many of the schools included in Tatler’s Guide are in affluent places, often those targeted by Londoners tired of the City and looking to capitalise on the equity in their small house and garden to buy a larger and much more suitable property in the sticks. Or, for those that want to stay in the capital, saving on fees means freeing up cash to extend, enjoy more holidays or move to one of the more desirable parts of London.

What does it mean for independent schools competing with those state schools that have merited entry to Tatler’s Guide? In short, they need to work harder at convincing parents that their fees are worth it. Not just smaller classes (at my children’s primary – one of those listed – they spend much of their time being taught in small groups) but the extras – the music, drama, arts and sports that these schools often overlook. This is where at primary level, in particular, the differences lie. All these state primaries do very well in reading, writing and mathematics but they lack specialist teaching, space and resources to offer anything close to their prep school counterparts in co-curricular activities. Why ferry your child around to after school activities when they can do the same, and more, at school?

Most pre-preps and preps have now also go the wraparound care sorted, and holiday activities and clubs, things sought after and badly needed by working parents and not always on offer at state schools. Cost of nanny vs school fees?

People are much more cautious with their cash these days and rightly so. There is certainly an increasing number of parents wanting to put their money into their property and are prepared to take a gamble on often unfamiliar state school territory. For some, it is completely the right decision. For others, a few years in and maybe the grass isn’t greener – opportunities for 7+ recruitment are there (particularly in places where primary provision is still split between infants and juniors) but often not capitalised on.

The Tatler State Schools Guide is not going to go away, in fact I expect it will only get bigger and more comprehensive. In this climate, Independent schools need to be as aware of their state competition as their private counterparts and find a way to convince parents that are able to pay to do so.

Keeping them sweet

Parents often register their children for pre-prep and prep schools several years in advance, stumping up not insignificant registration fees to do so. In some cases this will guarantee a place at the school but increasingly schools are assessing children (and parents) for entry at 4+, usually in the early part of the year prior to September entry.

Assuming many parents will also be looking at state primary schools, particularly in areas where provision is good but places are hotly contested and possibly two or more preps, what should schools be doing to ensure they stay top of mind and top of registered parents’ lists?

Probably more than sending the odd calendar or mass mailing invitation to another Open Day. At some point you are going to be asking this family to come in for assessments and interview and then, if they are offered a place, they will need to pay a deposit to secure the place. From the moment they commit money to you, even if the place is not yet offered, you should start to make them feel part of your community.

  • Sending weekly newsletters (preferably via email) will keep them up to date with what is happening in school.
  • Personalising letters with invitations to events (Summer/Christmas Fairs) will provoke a much more favourable response.
  • Running parent & Pre-schooler events so families can come into school (storytelling; outdoor activities) and start to feel familiar in your surroundings
  • Offering a refresher tour closer to the assessment dates to ensure parents are reminded of what you offer and you can tell them about any new/updated facilities, curriculum additions.
  • Include them at PTA events – nothing persuades prospective parents more than hearing current parents rave/enthuse about their child’s school so why not encourage registered parents to come along to a PTA social.

Ultimately you may not be able to offer these parents a place for their child, or indeed they may turn your offer down but you want every parent to have a positive feeling about your school in case they have younger siblings who they might consider for entry, so that they can tell their friends how friendly, warm and welcoming you are or, in case their circumstances change and they come knocking at your door looking for a place in the future.