I was delighted to be asked to sit on a panel at the BSA Heads Conference this morning, discussing how boarding schools have harnessed publicity to retain numbers and secure a firm position in the British independent education sector. As a school proud of its ninety-three year boarding heritage and as a Head who has been fiercely passionate about the benefits of boarding since my first steps as a tutor at Downe House, I felt confident in my position to start the conversation.
Westonbirt has been on quite the journey and my own development has been shaped significantly by pastoral experiences gained in previous roles at Gordonstoun and Harrogate Ladies. The Heads of both schools helped inspire and impact my understanding of how the business of education supports us in delivering education as our business. That is not to say we are distant from our pupils given they are our business, but that we understand how important it is that the children are our focus.
When I started at Westonbirt, we faced quite a task in reversing the falling roll and challenging misconceptions which were unfairly affecting the admissions process. It was important we first revisited the core values of Westonbirt, ensuring they were still relevant and embedding them as we redefined our brand. It was equally as important to understand the expectation and requirements of both our local and our boarding parents and evaluate the relevance of our provision in accordance.
As a Grade 1 listed house and parkland, developing state-of-the-art ensuite bathrooms was almost impossible, so it became important for us to focus on what we could deliver well and understand how that would genuinely look and feel. Community is at the heart of all we do at Westonbirt and defines how we deliver our education. This has meant that it is the atmosphere we create to support the development of our students that has become a crucial element of our marketing strategy but that, in its intangibility, is also perhaps the hardest part of our sale.
Based in a house with a heritage of nurturing world class trees and plants at Westonbirt, it is perhaps not surprising that we consider ourselves a greenhouse and not a hothouse. It is the attention to detail and the knowledge of each child which allows us to deliver exceptional teaching that adjusts according to individual needs. Many of our boarding schools do this, but it is all too easy to get caught ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ in responding to expectation, rather than focusing on what is fundamentally required by the child or the actual education.
With a needs must approach and a practicality not always afforded to heads, we set about our re-brand with some simple guidelines:
Firstly, to look at what was appreciated and to understand how that was delivered with the intention of reviewing and improving. Next, to find out what was missing and to identify of those which were needs and which were wants, and to develop targeting accordingly.
Observing the marketplace to identify the changes we needed was key. For Westonbirt this included fees, coeducation and retaining our uniqueness whilst benefitting from the strengths of seeking an affiliation to a group, rather than a standalone school.
Throughout, it has been essential that we are constantly reviewing outcomes to ensure the development and security of what has been going well, whilst harnessing the value of the stories that have followed and sharing on social or digital platforms.
I am delighted that Westonbirt is now in the exciting position where our efforts are being rewarded. Our roll number has increased by almost 50% over the past two years and 40% of Key Stage 3 is now made up of boys but, most importantly, our values have remained the same. Change is not an easy master; we are invigorated, if a little inundated, but mostly we remain inspired by the young minds that surround us and brilliantly supported having been brought into the Wishford Schools group.