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Journal cover: International Journal of Educational Management

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

Online from: 1987

Subject Area: Education

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Strategic marketing planning in international schools

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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/09513540510574957

Article citation: Tristan Bunnell, (2005) "Strategic marketing planning in international schools", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.59 - 66




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The Authors

Tristan Bunnell, Copenhagen International School, Copenhagen, Denmark


Purpose – International schools are a growing class of educational institution. It has been suggested that few schools of this type have a marketing plan whilst research into development planning showed that few had a long-range plan. This paper aims to investigate these issues.

Design/methodology/approach – This paper deals with a survey of 32 international schools in 22 different countries. The public relations practitioner in each was questioned as to the nature of the marketing planning process.

Findings – Half of the schools had a marketing plan. Few had a one-year one, and few had a cyclical one with stages. Several had dispensed with such a plan. The major aim of marketing planning was to attract more students. There was little evidence of it being a strategic process. Few schools involved the whole school body.

Research limitations/implications – This involved a small-scale survey of international schools at a time when student numbers were high. This survey failed to take into account the growth of this type of school in mainland China.

Practical implications – It is suggested that perhaps some international schools might focus more on non-rational planning and scenario-building techniques. Making more contact with the local community might also be beneficial as a strategic marketing aim.

Originality/value – This paper furthers the understanding of the nature and organizational culture of international schools. It builds upon earlier research into development planning in this type of school.

Article Type:

Research paper


Education; Schools; Marketing planning; International organizations; Strategic planning.


International Journal of Educational Management









Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



Textbook marketing planning in schools

Documentation lays out what is expected of British maintained schools in the way of a rational development plan. A five-staged DES (1990) initiated framework was centered on the school's mission statement, stage one of the plan (see Gray, 1991). This is typical of such approaches and it is arguably right that marketing planning ought to have been seen by the DES at the time as a cycle of activity- a process. It is arguably not intended to be a single one-off event. Nor should it be seen as an end in itself. It is not about producing a document of statements that is then left gathering dust in the school office. Textbooks on educational marketing usually identify more than five stages, indeed six or seven is the norm. A typical approach is to start with market research and moves on to analyzing the school's product (Davies and Ellison, 1991). Next comes the drawing up of the mission statement followed by the developing of the marketing strategy and the developing of promotional material. The final stage is the monitoring and evaluating of the plan. Whatever the approach, all such plans contain elements of market research and evaluation. Little mention is made of the time-scale but one can assume this to be an annual event in most cases.

What is such a marketing plan meant to do? In the case of many schools it is probably seen as a vehicle for attracting more students. However, there is no evidence that this is a fruitful method. McDonald (1989) found little correlation between marketing planning and marketing success in terms of greater demand. For Pardey (1991 p. 49), the point of a marketing plan is simply to be ready for the future. It is more of a management tool. He states that: “Clearly, the need to prepare for the future is part of any manager's role; it is part of that planning to identify the uncertainties and to have contingency plans available to deal with the likeliest alternatives”. Pardey (1991) also argues that it ought to be seen as a positive feature of school management, as a tool for flexibility not as a constraint for management. However, there is evidence that some educators are less favourable to it. Boyd (2002), for example, refers to it as a “fad” and a “silly theory”. Mitchell (2002) dismisses it as a useful process for many schools arguing that it is impossible for a school to predict the future. Other educators are more positive. In Scotland, the Educational Institute, a teachers' union, argued in a policy paper on development planning that it would allow teachers to control change and protect them from excessive workload (Munro, 2001).

The international school context

International schools are an area of schooling that has grown enormously in number over the last 30 years. In 1964 it was that there were only 50 around the world. According to Pearce (2001, p. 3), in 1997 there were 1,724 institutions in 174 countries, following at least 11 different systems and serving over one million students. This is due to a number of factors such as increasingly cheap travel, the rapid growth of multi-national corporations and the trend towards keeping children with the family instead of sending them to boarding school. This growth has been rapid and largely unplanned and has led to some locations such as London having a large and diverse grouping of 17 such schools. Leggate and Thompson (1997) identified this as one of the major problems affecting the management of development planning in international schools.

It is incorrect to think of “international schools” as merely a post-war phenomenon. According to Sylvester (2002: 91), the term has been in continuous use since the 1860s. Having said that, it is true to say that the majority of present-day international schools are a product of the globalization process. Interestingly, Walker (2000: 193) states 1924, the year of the foundation of the International School of Geneva, as the “origin” of modern international education. The enlargement of the European Union will probably lead to further growth in the near future. Much growth is occurring in China and the Far East where an emerging middle-class is starting to look towards international schools as an alternative to the local system. The growth of the International Baccalaureate, the main international curriculum of international schools, may also be a factor for the present growth.

The nature of marketing planning

Marketing planning brings with it an array of confusing terms and concepts. It is easy, for example, to confuse flexibility with formality. A marketing plan can be formal if it is written down as a rational framework, similar to the DES (1990) guidelines. Flexibility refers to how it was constructed. If it is drawn up by a committee made up of selected experts then it is inflexible. In international schools it is likely to be flexible in that it is probably the result of collaboration between only the PRP and the senior-management. It is also likely to be quite informal. A marketing plan can also be rational or non-rational. Clearly a formally drawn up five-stage document will be a rational plan. But, many organizations may prefer to focus on the more flexible “scenario-building” type of planning process.

There is a lack of consensus over who ought to draw up a marketing plan in schools. Martin (2002) sees development planning as being the essential task of school governors and ought to be undertaking annually. Martin also states that many schools have a marketing committee or planning is undertaken by a curriculum committee. McPartlin (2001) argues that it is essential that planning involves the staff and pupils. However, there is little evidence that this is the case. Research into collaboration between schools in Scotland and the local community found that less than 40 per cent of schools involve parents and less than 20 per cent consulted the pupils (Thornton, 1999). Cairney (2000) tells of how one Scottish professor dismisses the involvement of children in development planning as “little more than tokenism”.

There is no clear consensus over what the term “planning” actually means in relation to schools. Blaney (2001), with specific reference to international schools, argues that long-term planning is about making decisions. It is not about day dreaming. It is a practical exercise in decision-making to try to ensure that the organization goes from where it is now to where it wants to go in a given time-period. This sounds straight-forward enough except that Blaney (2001) also calls long-term planning “strategic” planning. Nelson (2000) points out that the two are often used interchangeably. But, it is normal to make a distinction. This paper takes the view that “long-range” planning is the role of the school's development plan – the setting of a long-term vision. A marketing plan, as an on-going cyclical process, is more of a “strategic’ plan. This is in line with the views of Brown (2000) who points out that strategic planning is a much more time-consuming activity. An array of models exists to help schools undertake a marketing planning process. The simple “SWOT Analysis” will be known to most schools. However, many schools would find other matrix models useful- “The Ansoff Matrix” and “The Boston Matrix’ are two that can be easily incorporated by schools (Pardey, 1991). The more complex “ 3 × 3 Model” developed for the giant GEC Corporation is probably of less use.

Design of the study

Research was undertaken during the academic years of 1997-99. A total 34 international schools in 22 different countries around the world were analyzed with regard to the nature and extent of their current public relations activity. The majority of the schools were members of the largest regional association, the European Council of International Schools (ECIS). Half of all the schools surveyed were small, with less than 350 students. This is actually more the normal size of a typical international school. A mixture of American, British and general international schools were surveyed. Four schools were chosen where the head was also the PRP. One third of the schools were profit-making institutions. The remainder was Trusts or Charities.

The PR and marketing practitioner in each school (the PRP) was questioned. In the case of 17 schools, all in Europe, this was undertaken face-to-face. In the other schools this was done via a postal survey. Questions were asked regarding the organizational setup and the school's development. The views and attitudes of the PRP towards public relations and marketing were also sought. A thorough analysis of the school's PR programme and processes was undertaken, including an analysis of the marketing and development planning process. Practitioners were asked what barriers and problems they faced in undertaking marketing activity.

Interestingly, 80 per cent of all the PRPs were female. American nationals constituted 90 per cent of the PRPs and a further eight per cent British. All four heads were male, the only males involved. None had any formal marketing or PR qualification. This was to be expected since only one University in the UK offers degrees actually in PR. Only seven of the 17 practitioners visited had any formal teaching experience. Overall, four had been doing the job for over ten years, and two for 15 years, but the majority had only been in the job for three years. Surprisingly, 70 per cent had no formal job description. One quarter were ex-parents of children in international schools. Five per cent were present parents. Ten per cent were ex-secretary's at the school who had been promoted to the post. Almost half were the first person in their school to hold the post. The practitioner often has a multitude of tasks alongside marketing planning.

The findings

Only 70 per cent of the PRPs expressed the need for any form of formal, structured and rational marketing plan. This is close to the 68 per cent of heads who expressed to Leggate and Thompson (1997) that a development plan was essential. However, only just over half, 55 per cent in fact, of the schools actually had any form of such a marketing plan. This seems to vindicate the view of Barlow (1996) who argued that few international schools have a marketing or PR specialist and that even fewer have effective marketing strategies and plans. It also seems to fit in well with a survey by the Leverhulme Trust in 1990 that revealed that only 50 per cent of maintained schools in the UK have a marketing plan. Hence, we can say that the practice in international schools seems to be in line with other types of educational institution.

It is mainly the larger schools, those with over 1,000 students, who have a formal marketing plan. This size of schools is not typical, over 60 per cent of all international schools have less than 300 students. Only one-third of this size of school has one. Interestingly, ten per cent of all schools have now dispensed with a marketing plan giving the reason that it is no longer required as their student numbers are so high. If one adds this 10 per cent to the 55 per cent who currently have a plan we reach a figure closer to the 75 per cent of schools that Leggate and Thompson (1997) showed had a development plan. What we can deduce from this is that some schools have dispensed with both a development plan and a marketing plan since 1997. Ninety per cent of those schools who have a plan have a one-to-five year plan. The rest have a ten-year plan. Very few have an annual plan. This is in line with Leggate and Thompson (1997) who found that 78 per cent of international schools rejected this type of short-term plan.

There is little evidence of marketing planning being a cyclical process. Few schools express a need for the monitoring or evaluating of such plans. There is also little evidence of market research. Most data is anecdotal rather than having been formally collected. There is a huge discrepancy between different types of data. The most common type of data collected is the names and addresses of alumni going back two years which 84 per cent of all schools say they collect. The data least collected involves the views and attitudes of visitors going back more than a year which only six per cent bother to collect. In fact, the area of image analysis is an area of data collection that many international schools ignore despite its usefulness.

Blaney (2001, p. 159) appears to be correct when saying that: “In short, the visitor may well discover that strategic thinking and planning, for a variety of reasons, are not centerpieces of the school's governance and leadership activities”. This is certainly true with regard to international schools. There is no evidence to say this is a dereliction of duty or due to incompetence or laziness. It appears to be due to two main factors. First, that the main PR goal of most schools is to attract students and this is being achieved hence there is perceived to be no need for a textbook-style marketing plan. Second, the sudden and ad-hoc way in which international schools can grow and develop makes such a plan seem pointless. This is the view of the PR practitioners themselves. It is also true to say that there is a degree of confusion over what such a document is meant to consist of and meant to achieve. This raises the issue of the need for better training and induction. This may affect the 15 per cent of PRPs who say their school ought to have a plan but does not at present have one.

Interestingly, Leggate and Thompson (1997) made little mention of these factors when they focused on development plans. Instead they focused upon the hindrance of the mobile staffing structure and linguistic and legal complexities. They did, though, identify cultural, political and economic uncertainties as being possible hindrances to the drawing up of a development plan. The size of the student population seems to be the most significant factor. The fact that 95 per cent of international schools in Europe were full at the time and had a record high roll seems to be the major reason why half of these schools had no marketing plan. The others had more students than they have had for many years with 60 per cent having more students than they had two years ago. Despite this, at least 80 per cent of all international schools still see the increase in student numbers to be the major goal of their PR activity followed by the improving of the school's image and then the improving of the school's reputation. Only 5 per cent of small schools in Europe had any form of contingency plan for a possible future fall in numbers. In the Far East 50 per cent had one although this can be expected to fall as their numbers rise. Only half of all small schools had any sort of short term development plan as compared to two thirds of all schools. This raises the interesting question: “Are international schools being complacent given their high student numbers or is the lack of a marketing plan an inevitable feature of the manner in which international schools tend to grow and develop?”.


Blaney (2001) makes the point that a visitor to an international school, when asking to look at a copy of the school's long-term plan, will often hear the following statements: “We don't have time to plan around here- doing a long-term plan requires too much time, effort and cost”. Research into the extent and nature of current public relations practice appears to show this to be true, certainly with regard to the school's strategic marketing plan. Some international schools only draw up a marketing plan when their numbers are falling whilst the student roll seems to greatly affect the degree of development planning. International schools seem to dispense with marketing and development planning at just the moment when they arguably most need them, when their numbers are rising or full. Leggate and Thompson (1997) also made this point.

As Walker (2000) states, the aim of the “plan” is to bridge the “strategic gap”: the gap between where we are likely to end up if we go on as now and what we need to do if we want to go somewhere different. Thus, international schools that are presently full arguably ought to be thinking about the future and how they can maintain this momentum. The Bali bombing in October 2002, when four international school educators were killed, showed the fragile nature of some local situations. The apparent fall-off of student numbers in London after the invasion of Iraq is another example. This raises the issue that perhaps international schools would be better engaging in non-rational planning. Perhaps scenario-building techniques such as the Adelphi method might be more useful and appropriate (Gray, 1991).

From a marketing perspective, for small international schools in particular this seems to be an example of over-complacency. First, small schools often operate in an environment where they are with direct competition within a small cluster of larger international schools. This makes them very reliant upon gaining students who are unable to enter or is not wanted by these other, typically at present full, schools. Thus, many of these schools are actually second-preference choice and are reliant upon the economic success of these larger schools. Second, small schools rely very much upon their size to provide a marketing niche. It allows them to portray themselves as a small, caring, family oriented, friendly school as opposed to the less friendly and more “lonely” larger competitor schools. These schools sell themselves as providing small class sizes and low teacher-pupil ratios and pride themselves on the individual attention given to the students. However, there is a major danger that the school might get too big which may lead the school to lose its “global family” image and feeling. Perhaps small schools in particular ought to have a marketing plan especially at a time of rising numbers as paradoxically it may adversely affect their marketing potential. Some international schools may not want their student numbers to get too high.

Leggate and Thompson (1997) point out that not having a marketing plan may be construed as a positive thing. Other schools would probably be quite envious. Perhaps this shows how independent they are. Perhaps it means they can afford to concentrate on other management issues. Maybe it is a feature of the organizational culture of international schools- perhaps they are more informal than other types of school. Maybe international schools are less prone to the drawing up of formal policies and processes than other types of educational institution. Gray (1991, p. 46) makes the point that: “Educational planning has a very poor track record, largely due to the use of inappropriate ‘rational’ planning models which fail to take account of some fundamental characteristics of the educational environment”. Perhaps this is an advantage that international schools have over other schools – they don not have to undertake such inappropriate planning. But, at the same time, perhaps they ought to be engaging in some form of non-rational planning, just in case. The nature of international schools can arguably have its upside and its downside.

These findings have implications for other types of educational institutions. How many other types of school neglect to see marketing planning as a cyclical process? How many other schools neglect the area of market research? More importantly, how many bother to monitor and evaluate? This last stage is crucial for without it there can be no cycle. The main lesson from international schools seems to be that marketing planning ought to be done by all schools at all time. It is not something that should be dropped when the student numbers are good. It is an essential part of the total quality management of a school. If the school numbers are good then maybe a school should review the marketing plan and change the objectives. For instance, last year it might have been to increase the student numbers. This year it could be something else. This is what makes it a “strategic” plan. The evidence from international schools is that administrators seem to confuse “strategic” marketing planning with “long-term” planning. This is probably the case with other types of school. It is all too easy to see marketing planning as a one-off paper exercise.

In the case of international schools there is a case for arguing that they would be wise to maybe start to focus on areas other than attracting more students. Making more links with the local community would arguably be beneficial. Or, making more contact with the local press. Other types of school might also be advised to do this. Schools need to think also about how this plan is to be drawn up. Should all staff be involved? Should parents and the students be involved? Should an outside agency be brought in to help out? These are probably issues that all schools should be thinking about, not just international schools.


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Further Reading

Bunnell, T. (2003), “Public relations activity in international schools: towards a greater understanding of how this type of school functions as a distinct class of institution”, PhD thesis, University of Southampton, Southampton, .

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