Working with boarding schools requires long-term planning, relationship building and a balanced portfolio of partners, with the needs of schools and students necessitating a different approach to language and tertiary sectors.
It is a sector that remains refreshingly traditional, explains Inessa Khvostova from Lucullus Educational Consultants in Russia. “I think [this] is because the boarding school world is still very closed and well protected from the outer world. And I like it! It makes me and the parents of children feel assured that the child will be well protected and looked after.” Verena Ackels of GLS Sprachenzentrum, Germany, finds flexibility and eagerness from her USA-based schools. “As boarding schools, which are mainly private schools, are not as restricted as public state schools when it comes to academics, athletics or activity options, requirements for applicants are not that restricted either.”
Building durable partnerships is fundamental. “With most of our schools we have longstanding partnerships and value good cooperation with them,” says Ackels. Olugbenga Ogunbode of TIEC Group in Nigeria agrees, “The sector involves developing long-term relationships and hence relationship building with families and students as well as schools is very important.”
Indeed, communication regarding existing students is “the best way to get first-hand information on everyday life and to discover if promises and reality are closely related or diverge”, explains Dr Detlef Kulessa from Töchter & Söhne in Germany. This ongoing communication with schools is important, relates Helen Wong-Cooper of Hong Kong-based UK Education Advisers, “So they can see we cooperate efficiently with them and that we have the best interests of the students at heart.”
Ackels advises she sometimes receives cooperation offers from schools. “We do of course consider all options but cannot take all of them on board.” Wong-Cooper notes a similar trend, adding, “Word-of-mouth recommendations from students or their parents are also very important.” Kulessa concurs, “The main source to acquire new contacts is the recommendations of parents whose children already visited these schools. We get in touch, gather further information and finally visit. We never recommend schools we have not seen personally.” He adds, “If negative information accumulates, we are not reluctant to remove a school from our portfolio.”
A sizeable selection of schools is necessary to cater to clients’ varied needs. Larry Field of Overseas Personal Development Services in the UK, says, “We work with over 110 schools throughout the UK, offering a wide choice to parents.” He notes it is a challenge to get the balance right between filling places with good students and being flexible enough to offer to those who aspire to the top schools. As Kulessa opines, “Every school is an individual, as every pupil is. Thus it is our job to create the perfect match. Therefore, we need a portfolio of very different schools to be able to satisfy our clients’ needs.” He explains they also attend workshops and regularly welcome schools as guests. Wong-Cooper works with around 120 UK schools and relates there is no typical Hong Kong child, “It is our job to advise the families which boarding schools may be appropriate for their children. Therefore, we need a wide range of boarding schools.”
In terms of how to choose schools, Wong-Cooper says, “Although obtaining good examination results is important, we tend not to focus on examination league tables...We are interested in value-added statistics and always look at ISI [the Independent Schools Inspectorate] reports.” Ackels advises GLS tries to offer locations such as California and Florida as well as traditional New England states. “A broad academic curriculum and an extensive range of after-class activities are essential, as well as a well-structured residential life department.” She says a good balance of international/US students is important and, “We always try to look for the very ‘special something’ in one particular school, for example a catwalk show or restaurant management, which makes the difference when offering several schools.”
The boarding sector is not without its challenges. Khvostova explains it can be difficult to reach the right person, although she adds, “I take my hat off to the school registrars, who answer most of the incoming enquiries.” Field notes some schools are highly selective, and that the registration process is therefore understandably more complicated. The TIEC Group works in Nigeria and Ogunbode finds it hard to persuade schools to come and visit Africa. He also cautions that recent visa changes in the UK have the potential to make Nigerian students feel unwelcome and unvalued.
Nonetheless, it is a rewarding sector where patience and quality are recognised. “If people believe we are genuine, the business will naturally flow,” attests Wong-Cooper..
Many of the agents surveyed for this feature reported buoyant trends in demand for boarding schools from their respective countries. Larry Field of Overseas Personal Development Services in the UK relates that more Chinese students have applied through them over the last two years, and forecasts have been raised for 2013. He notes better marketing in mainland China and more visits by senior school staff as helping this process, adding that the company’s 15 years’ experience in placement and guardianship is now being recognised.
Meanwhile, Inessa Khvostova of Lucullus Educational Consultants in Russia advises, “Russia is a growing market and the demand for boarding schools is growing every year,” and parents are becoming “more discerning and knowledgeable”, she says. “Russian parents choose schools with excellent results and [an excellent] reputation…For them the ideal school is one that will guarantee the child access to a good university. It is extremely important that the school has convenient accommodation, good pastoral care and a wide choice of extracurricular activities.”