Enough already

There are better ways to use your school premises over the holiday than by running yet another summer school, says Ted Underwood

I like being in the office, but I don’t get there often enough. It’s nowhere grand, that’s for sure, but it’s ours. When we’re all in, Andy, Chris and I have settled into an easy model of co-existence punctuated by coffee, frank discussions about sport and comfortable silences punctuated by the irregular tap of our computer keyboards. Most of my time is spent drafting proposals, having meetings and handling the more mundane matters of running my own business. But it also allows me time for research.

Knowledge, as someone clever once said, is power. So I sit and read that IET article, sift through the blogs written by people in the know and browse over one of my school’s new prospectuses. For the very same reason, I spend more than a cursory few seconds looking at junk mail. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I like to know what’s out there and who’s doing it. As a consultant, I would say a good half of my work is simply being nosy.

But there is one thing which I promise you will always ruin my day. That is a piece of post, digital or otherwise, cheerfully advertising a new summer school. Brilliant. Why does this upset me so? Because we don’t need any more, that’s why.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good summer school and actually there can be something exasperatingly charming about the bad ones too. Back in my student days, I started working at summer schools in the summer as an activities leader and had a great time. The pay was awful, but I never got a chance to spend it, and I lived and worked with a dozen or so other people my age for eight weeks at a time. After that, I would return to my parents’ house and sleep for a week before getting back to university for a rest. As I grew older, I started teaching in and ultimately managing summer schools. One of my business partners Andy and I met working on summer schools together and we regularly reminisce about the fun we had. Trust me when I say that summer schools will always hold a special place in my heart.

My concern arises from the fact that I just don’t think it’s a very clever way of making your school pay over the summer anymore. Embassy and Stafford House are two companies which have been doing this for a very long time and they’ve got it down to a fine art. You might argue that whilst they may be the biggest they aren’t necessarily the best, but then you’re missing the point. This is a price-sensitive marketplace with little in the way of return custom. Unless you’re offering something completely unique then it’s just not about what you’ve got, rather how loud you shout about it.

In the early part of this century, I would have thought you mad to NOT have a summer programme, but that ship has sailed with the Euro. These days, the large groups of Italians and Spanish who used to be the bread and butter of summer school programmes are few and far between and well nurtured by reps from the big players – often even agents don’t get a look in.

If you’re going to insist on running an international summer programme you have to have a niche and, equally as important, a niche market. Can your school offer horse riding? If you can, then contact every polo and riding club across the Middle East. Does your school have enduring links with schools abroad? Right, well, there’s your market.

I am entirely sympathetic to schools wanting to make their campuses pay over the summer, but it often seems a case of being trapped between a rock and a hard place. The options are hardly attractive. You could always rent out your campus to another company, which is potentially quite easy, although your estates team will complain about the mess they make and you’ll be galled to watch how much money they’ve made. Another unappealing option is conferencing. Since the dawn of time, humans have loved conferences as an excuse to get away from the office for a couple of days, drink too much on expenses and not really work very hard. If you look at the first tribal gatherings of early humans, they were essentially conferences and I don’t think they’ve moved very far forward since. If there’s one group of people guaranteed to let off your fire extinguishers, make a mess and then complain about it all afterwards, it’s conference delegates.

Finally, there’s the activity programme for the local community, which will give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but is hardly a great earner. I completely understand where schools are coming from when they think that an international summer school is a sound way of generating revenue, but they are throwing their hat into a ring which is even more crowded, competitive and focused on the bottom line than the regular academic year.

So here’s another option. I’ve written before about the need for international students, particularly the new arrivals, to integrate into the life of the school as quickly and smoothly as possible. If your school is keen to keep generating revenue over the summer months, then possibly a fourth term for your international cohort – and any domestic students who need additional support for that matter – could well be the answer.

There are a few schools already doing this and it seems to be working well. Admittedly, the expense of keeping some of your regular teachers on over the summer can mean less profit, but this is probably offset considerably by curbing the costs of marketing to a completely new client base with a completely different product. As well as that, this way adds intrinsic benefits to your academic year in a way that a standalone summer programme just can’t; it means that your international students are ready for that September start and as a school you’ve done right by your foreign cohort by taking the time to develop and integrate them. That is something which will reap rewards long term as well as keeping things ticking over during the summer.

Ted Underwood has over 14 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools


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