Public schools missing out on the power of marketing

Post by Mike Klassen in


Public schools are going to lose out to slick marketing by independents

Trust me when I say this ain't no plug for independent schools. Rather, it's a wake up call for the public education system to take a hard look at how it can modernize itself.

The above poster ran as a full page in 24 Hours newspaper last week, and as well as in other publications. Several papers run ads with scrubbed looking children in blazers sporting plaid ties and skirts. That same look worked for Benetton ads for years, also the Gap, and now schools.

Each year this national road show to promote private schools makes its way to Vancouver. To register is free, and I plan to attend this year not as a prospective customer but as someone who wants to know how to market our schools better. I've invited others, including school trustees and the Minister of Education, to make their way to the Expo on Sunday, November 28th. I would also recommend any member of our board of education and the school superintendent to do the same.

This is not to take away from the private education system. For many students and their parents, it fits with their means, their educational needs, and in many cases their social status.

The vast majority of children still are educated in our public system. It's a system under strain largely, in my opinion, from its inability to respond in a timely manner to our evolving expectations. On yesterday morning's Bill Good Show a caller spoke about how after a bad experience years ago with the elementary school in his Eastside neighbourhood, he made a decision to continue to drive his three kids to west side schools.

What happened to cause this is not clear to me, but it's important to ask if our schools are simply not equipped to respond to the concerns of people like this morning's caller. I do know that walking to your local school is infinitely healthier than driving across town. It also helps to develop a sense of place for the family and community, which is eroded when your only connection to a neighbourhood is to drive in and out of it daily. And I don't think this is an exaggeration.

In Wednesday's Vancouver Courier schools columnist Naoibh O'Connor has written a good piece which raises the question of whether schools need to market themselves better. Specifically, she cites comments I made at public meeting about a school closing in my neighbourhood:

Last month, Citycaucus blogger and NPA-backer Mike Klassen spoke at the McBride annex meeting--he's the parent of a former McBride annex student. Klassen told trustees he spent years trying to boost its enrolment through online marketing and making the grounds more attractive, to no avail. He blamed the VSB for failing to promote the public system as effectively as private schools promote their programs. Klassen has a point. I called the VSB to ask if elementary schools host open houses prior to kindergarten registration so families can check out prospective schools. I'm told open houses aren't mandated by the district--it's up to individual principals.

She mildly counters my argument with...

It's debatable how much impact marketing would have since public schools can't offer what many private schools provide: religious-centred education, extra support for special needs students or greater access to costly technology and top universities available through the priciest private schools.

I believe the latter to only be partly true. Yes, private facilities provide many perks, but I think most parents are looking for academic excellence, followed by opportunities for athletics, and only then the social benefits of tony school settings. There's not much reason why the public system cannot really deliver first class service on the first two priorities regardless of the locale.

O'Connor also mentions the Our Kids Expo (poster above). She quotes a press release from the organization that states:

"The current state of the public system may frighten some parents but we're confident there is another option for them. And we're here to help them find it."

Who can blame them for preying upon the concerns of parents, who've listened to the Vancouver School Board Chair and her fellow trustees run down the system for the past two years?

Another Courier columnist thinks he knows what ails the public education system – the teacher's union. Mark Hasiuk has a very hard-hitting story title Teachers’ union secrecy can’t conceal sad truth that is a recommended read. In trying to find out stats on how many teachers have been disciplined or fired in the past year, he hits a brick wall put up by both the VSB and the BCTF.

Whether problem educators are a factor in the problems our public education system faces is unclear. But the fact we cannot find out how potential problems are being dealt with is not at all reassuring, and this, too, is a way our education system must evolve.

Have no doubt that if any private institution did this, it's unlikely that school would remain in business for long.

Our school system needs to remain adaptable and should learn from its private competitors. I hope I'll see some representatives of the VSB at the Bayshore on the 28th.


Update on our previous story about the $25,000 Vision election poll done by Ipsos-Reid for the school board. It turns out that as a result of our story the board has pulled the question from the poll about the Board's performance. The comments by Trustee Mike Lombardi where he stated "we wanted to leave the questions up to the professionals at Ipsos-Reid" left the company feeling like they were holding the bag on that $25,000 Vision boondoggle, hence the change.

The poll is still a BIG waste of scarce tax dollars, no matter how many questions you tweak.

- post by Mike


Great post. I think a lot of this turns on what is meant by marketing. In the four Ps of product, price, place, promotion I really think it is the first three that really matter. BC public eduction is struggling on the these. We are not providing the right product (what we help people learn) to the right people (the people who need to and are ready to learn) for the right price (or cost as the case may be). There is a lot the public sector needs to learn from the private and the competition from the private sector should provide a forcing mechansim for the public system. That said, it is crucial for our city to have quality, life-long education for everyone. I believe this is a core public good that will not be provided by the private sector. But then, how do we get there?

Classes are oversized, special needs kids are not being serviced, IT infrastructure is wholly inadequate, and we're going to spend money on... marketing? We don't need to market our public schools--they are already open and free to everyone. What we need is full funding to meet the needs of the students and better infrastructure to keep abreast of the changes necessary to prepare them, not for today's world, but tomorrows.

When the service you offer is free yet you continue to lose market share to your competitor who charges for their service its time to critically challenge what you are doing. Won't happen in the public education system as long as the BCTF continues to exercise their influence on education. To manage you must be able to measure and the BCTF works overtime to discredit the Fraser Institutes annual survey yet never offers any alternatives that would be better.

Have to disagree on this one Stuart.

Twenty-five years ago, I was involved in a marketing campaign for Maple Grove elementary School, on the West Side. The school was facing closure due to the vagaries of student population at the time (something that inevitably is either "Up' or "Down")

The Maple Grove PTA (as it was known then) wanted to figure out a way to fill those seats. What they came up with was a series of open houses, supported by a small advertising program in community papers.

Those ads described the benefits of sending a child to Maple Grove, including the type of atmosphere there, what was being accomplished, the quality of the teaching, what they perceived the schools particular "strengths" to be, etc. (Just because schools are funded the same, doesn't mean they are "equal". Believe me, schools vary widely in attitude, dedication of staff, management by principals).

I still remember the headline I wrote for the ads: "Give your child an education that even money can't buy".

Which of course, was intended to show that a public school education, at Maple Grove, could go head to head with the private school system. Maple Grove enrollment went up 25%, and saved it from closure. I am as proud of that as anything else I have accomplished in life.

As an East Side parent pointed out several weeks ago, why not make one of the schools slated for closure into something "special"--I believed she mentioned a fine arts focus. This would add to the choice that so many parents seem to want in our school system, and move kids into those spots. But if we can't do that, then by all means, every parent should know what makes those East Side school "special" right now. Whether it's a teacher who has achieved a local or national honour, a spin on a current program, the dedication of the school PAC---let's know what is happening at each of our schools.

Having just criticized a $25,000 poll, I don't want this to be considered an endorsement of a slick, costly marketing exercise by a top PR firm. What I am suggesting is that we give parents and administrators the tools to promote their own schools within communities.

The truth is parents who validate or criticize schools are the most influential voices within a community. If for example your child is in pre-school, and your neighbour with a kid already enrolled in school X says the school is bad, want to bet that you start looking for options?

Notice how "going local" is a hot trend in our diets? What if the same "go local" idea was applied to schools, and we spent time and effort explaining the benefits of local schools over the alternatives? Why can't we target parents with pre-school kids with open houses and other information?

I'm highly skeptical of special programs that appear to draw kids out of one under-enrolled catchment into another. Our goal should be to prevent losses to the private system, not take from another public.

Stu, you failed to add this:
"Stop peddling the private education inside public school's yards..."
Like with everything else in this province 'private interests' are sabotaging 'public assets' in full view, and on the record.

Steven cut the crap. Public Education IS NOT A PRODUCT. Just in case you didn't know. The only thing that needs lots of marketing, advertising topped with lies are defective, misleading, low quality products like...private education


How about the BCTF stops peddling their agenda with the propoganda they send home with kids.

The lure of private education is not only the better quality education, but not having to deal with the polictical crap the BCTF tries to drag everybody into. Aside from the pro-D days, half days on Friday, other random hump days, it is endless. And aren't we due for strike soon - seems about time, I mean afterall, it hs been what, 3 years or so since the last round of contract talks.

But remember, according to the BCTF, it is ALL about the kids.

Yeah, professional development is such a waste of time.

random hump days? half fridays? what schools do that?

Hi Michelle

When you say 'education is not a product' do you mean 'it is a public good'? In that case I agree with you. But if you mean there is nothing the public sector can learn from the private sector I disagree. There are lots of educational best practices to be found in both sectors, and if the public sector refuses to learn from the private sector it will fall behind. One size does not fit all and the more diversity the better.

boohoo, check up.

One of the bones of contention is that schools are only in for a half day on Friday yet teachers get paid for the full day.

I work with two people whose spouses are teachers. One in the public system and one in the private system.

And FYI - not all techers spend their pro-D day 'upgrading' their skills.


My wife is a teacher and I've never heard of half day fridays. Is that a district specific thing?

She works in the public system, her best friend in the private. She has 31 students, 9 with special needs of some sort. Her friend in the private sector has 21, of course none with special needs, and a full time assistant in the class room.

As for pro-d days, sure there are probably teachers who don't use that day for its intent. Just like any profession. I surely hope you aren't painting all teachers with the same brush because of some bad ones.

Your post doesn't make sense. You have the highest per student funding and are losing students to private education options. Yet your response is to ask for more money. So you want the taxpayers to increase funding for a model that is obviously failing. Try some innovation. Try lowering salaries so more funding can be allocated to technology, school lunch programs, special needs programs etc...How about year round schooling to better capitalize on asset base? How about performance based pay incentives...oh wait a sec, the BCTF doesn't like those options. That's OK though, looks like more and more people are discovering that they don't like the way the BCTF runs the public school system...monopolies don't work, especially in the hands of militant left wing unions.


What other profession gets paid for a day off by calling it a professional development day?


It's not a day off. I don't know what you're getting at.


'....Previously the school board has also said it may shorten the school year by 10 days to save money, and end half-day classes on Fridays, for which the board must pay teachers a full day's wage.'

Source: CBC, March 19, 2010

Read more:


That must be a district specific thing, I can tell you for fact my wife doesn't get half day fridays--I've never heard of that anywhere...

Are there others here who know teachers that get half day fridays?


You said "sure there are probably teachers who don't use that day for its intent. Just like any profession."

If teachers are not accountable for how they use the PD day then it is just a day off.

Yes Bill, teachers aren't perfect. Sometimes they play hooky. What's your point?

It's a paid day of work because it's expected you'll work.

It's weird how people always take the worst example of something and extrapolate it to use it in some twisted argument that paints the entire profession/professionals as one uniform group.

My point is what other job is out there that provides paid professional days without any accountability for the time spent. Without accountability it is just a day off.

Well, it's a shame you have such a low opinion of teachers professionalism but there's not much that can be done about how you feel.

Spot on.

Pleased to see that my comments to the Vancouver School Board trustees, as well as my other public commentary has opened the minds of COPE trustees.

Now both COPE & NPA trustees feel that we need to step up marketing local public schools. Vision, however, felt it necessary to mock this idea.

Check out!

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