Working out a school's competitive position even when it's not competing #28daysofwriting
Most schools are state schools, so the idea that leadership might spend time working out a competitive position, or value proposition, often seems absurd. Surely that is an exercise the preserve of private schools and, even more so, private business? State schools are for local kids - the value proposition is that the school is closest to your home. Period.
Steve Mouldey blogged yesterday about his own school's vision, and how it sets this state school, Hobsonville, apart from other schools in the area. In this post he cites an excerpt from Grant Lichtman's #EdJourney (pp. 92-94) where the notion of value proposition is justified on the fact that students have more mobility between education provision (other schools, homeschooling, online) than ever before. Steve talks about a notion of value proposition that I'd disagree with:
"The Value Proposition, as I understand it, is about what you actually do compared to what you say you will do (much like Espoused Theory vs Theory in Use by Chris Argyris)."
In our startup work, the value proposition is much more clearly understood as what you do compared to what your competitors say they do, or are perceived as doing, by their customers. The competitors might not actually deliver on what they say they do, but the perception of the customer is all.
For example, in my local area of Edinburgh are three primary schools:
- the closest one to home is in a Victorian building, where school inspectors have repeatedly made the point that capital building and repair projects eat into funds that could otherwise be used for learning. I decided not to send my child there;
- the one at the top of the hill has a fabulous reputation, thanks to the perceived quality of the high school with which it is associated. The high school changed head teacher years ago, and has been on decline since then. The primary school's inspectorate report is average. I decided not to send my children there;
- the Catholic school is the furthest away from home. Catholic education is often perceived as a good choice - parents chose to send their children there, whereas the other state schools are often default schools, being closest to home, ergo, parents who make a choice care more about their kids' learning, ergo: the kids will be more engaged at home as well as in school. Also, on a visit to the school, this perception was reinforced during a school tour and two successful first years for our eldest. We chose to put our first kid there.
But this school's value propositions (in this case: quality of learning, getting the job of learning done, lowering cost (it's free!)) were not consistently applied. As soon as our daughter hit Primary 3, the key reason for using this school - quality of learning and getting the job done - suffered. A new teacher, needing some solid support from other teaching colleagues and the leadership team, struggled as neither was offered sufficiently. The cost of sending my kid there increased dramatically - she was unhappy, which made her mother and me devastated. The cost was not financial. The cost was emotional.
My kid no longer goes there. We've increased costs substantially, by opting out of the local education system and sending her to a school 20 minutes away. However, we are guaranteed on the value proposition of the new school - a consistently excellent education, no quibbles.
A value proposition, even if you are a state school, is a vital value to hone down, not just so that kids aren't ripped out of your school but so that everyone, including the leaders, can be held to account when kinks in the system appear. If you state that excellence in education is your value proposition, then you'd better get that nailed, all the time, every time, or perceptions will change and take a long time to bring back.
And defining a value proposition is easy - you can really only choose one top value you pursue, and a close-place second one. Beyond two core value propositions, your team will be lost and not know what they are chasing:
New schools can use this as a value proposition for a few months for each new school year to be introduced, to gain traction fast but, above all, to inspire distributed leadership and innovation in teaching and learning among its staff. It won't just happen - it needs stated as the value proposition by the school's founders.
Is your school in the top 10, top 20, top 50 of the country? Work out where the cut-off point for your excellence might be, where your performance is considered worth talking about. Equally, movement from mediocrity to excellence is worth talking about. The Bohunt School (11th best in England, from the middle ground, in six years flat) is my global fave for that kind of heroes story.
Do you offer a learning experience that is genuinely student-led - can I make the kind of education I want?
- "getting the job done"
Do you consistently get kids what they need - not excellent, not poor, but you will get them into college / into an apprenticeship, and you fail no-one?
Amazing facilities? Beautiful resources? Great food in the restaurant (not canteen...)?
Are you already in a position of being "the" school that people send their kids to? How do you maintain that with another value proposition that no-one else offers? This nearly always goes hand in hand with another value proposition that justifies the brand.
Most state schools are free or near-to-free to attend. Price isn't a great VP in that case. For private schools, this is a huge consideration.
- cost reduction
Much like price, the cost of education is already low for most. Being geographically well-placed reduces families' costs of getting to school. Providing transport for children is another way. Providing technology is another.
- risk reduction
Do you reduce the risk that a child will fail, through additional support or a specific strategy?
Do you give access to activities or experiences that are normally the preserve of private schools? Or do you offer access to university early on, to students who would not normally expect that? Or do you provide access to business-building where most schools do not?
Are you close by, or run with flexible hours? Are you approachable for parents? Do you have facilities that help students stay in school longer? Holiday learning days?