Can the recruitment of pupils for UK boarding schools ever be 100% online?

“Marketing budgets, once heavily weighted to foreign travel for recruitment purposes, are now shifting to google ads, Instagram and Facebook”

Covid-19 has heralded a shift to an online world which has implications for every aspect of boarding school operations, writes Pat Moores, director and co-founder of UK Education Guide. Clearly, the most obvious impact has been on teaching, shifting almost overnight to Microsoft teams and other online learning platforms.

However, the impact is also being felt in pupil recruitment. The days when agents and schools met in large conference spaces to talk to each other and make agent agreements has also shifted online.

So how far can algorithms and automated online applications processes ever replace traditional Agents, school admissions teams and a school tour?

We asked some boarding school sector leaders for their opinions…

Certainly the shift to online marketing is noted by all the leaders we spoke to. Marketing budgets, once heavily weighted to foreign travel for recruitment purposes, are now shifting to google ads and building strong school profiles on Instagram and Facebook. This change arguably has the ability to “level up the market”, allowing more schools to promote effectively. However, this is only likely if schools have the necessary online marketing skills to get noticed in an increasingly competitive market where many schools will be bidding for the same keywords in the same markets?

This move to online marketing also started before Covid-19 kicked in, as Caroline Nixon, director of BAISIS and international director for BSA points out, “even before Covid-19, marketing and admissions personnel (and certainly bursars) at independent schools were asking themselves if flying round the world and sitting in hotel rooms handing out paper brochures was really the most effective way to recruit international students in today’s online world? The cost of this approach was one concern and the environmental impact, another.”  

What about school selection?

Identifying a range of schools that best suit a particular child is probably the easiest part of the process to automate and certainly where online recruitment companies could add most value. Very much like an online dating app, key school requirements such as size, location and single sex versus mixed school can be easily added to a questionnaire to narrow down schools that have already been filtered using these tangible tick box criteria.

However, schools will be concerned that this approach is leaving too much to chance and will probably still want to be recruiting on the ground in target countries. As Mark Jeynes, director of Bishopstrow College and Padworth College explains:

“As we can’t easily fly to meet families ourselves in the current situation we are thinking about recruiting local sales reps in countries and specific regions to support our international recruitment efforts.”

Also, there are aspects of school selection that are far less able to be covered by a tick box approach. A child’s personality must be taken into account in school selection and this is far harder to do well by simply selecting from a list of personality traits. Talking to a family to clearly understand a child’s personality is hard to replicate via an online form. As Gareth Collier, principal of Cardiff Sixth Form College says, “the loss of the personal touch is evidence of the downside of our new online and remote recruitment practices”.

What about replacing school visits?

How can families really get a proper understanding of a school without a school visit? Some families already do select a school without visiting the UK and most schools now have a virtual online school tour which can really help a family envisage what school life is like, but can this ever replace an actual visit?

As Mark Jeynes adds, “many families of prospective international students will continue to want to visit a school and meet the head. Whilst virtual tours are a substitute, when it is possible to resume international travel, we definitely expect this type of traditional activity to resume.”

This is arguably the real pinch point where a fully online or remote recruitment process begins to come unstuck.

Purchasing a UK education is a luxury item, a six figure investment, but it is more than that: it is a child’s welfare that is at stake, and however good an online based recruitment process is, it is arguable that nothing can replace meeting the team of people that will ultimately be responsible for their safety and wellbeing.

About the author: Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide. She has previously written for the PIE blog about private and state school collaboration in the UK and remaining competitive in the Covid-19 world.