From a French point of view, education and marketing make for strange bedfellows. We consider education to be something pure and noble – something which doesn’t mix well with lowly commercial strategies and ploys. We never use the words customer, merchandise, product or, heaven forbid, business when we talk about school; school is far too serious a subject to be ‘sold’.
And yet, it cannot be denied that there is an education market out there; it exists and it is highly competitive. In the Anglo-Saxon world, schools have far fewer scruples about embracing the concept of the education market. You only have to look at institutions like Dulwich or Harrow to see how they not only understand the market, but also impose their educational model all over the globe – particularly in Asia.
French schools are lagging behind when it comes to advertising their strengths on the international market. Lycées can be found in almost every world capital and they have been catering to expats and a privileged few from the local population for decades. In Europe and America, they benefit from the centuries old allure and reputation of the French language, culture and history; in Africa, historic links to France continue to make French education an attractive option in a large number of countries. Those who are familiar with the French education system tend to be loyal to it – knowing and understanding its strengths. They also know the advantage that speaking the French language holds in elite society around the world (with everyone speaking English nowadays, French is a sophisticated plus).
Choosing the French system in Europe, North America and Africa can sometimes entail families making ‘sacrifices’; traditional, historic school premises can have plenty of charm and character, but lack modern sports facilities and IT infrastructure. French schools are often located in the heart of historic cities with all of the advantages (chic neighbourhoods, good public transport) and disadvantages (shortage of space, outdated facilities) that privilege entails. Yet for these schools, and the families that frequent them, the school building is a mere shell – the real interest lies in what happens inside – in the classrooms. The advantage inherent in attending a French school is a well-guarded secret kept by families “in the know”. What they know, in particular, is that attending one of the 500 French schools in the AEFE network is a guarantee of entry into the best universities in the world. They can live without an onsite swimming pool.
When Asia and the Middle-East established themselves as the new eldorado for international schools, French lycées had to adapt quickly to a new environment – competing against international educational institutions. The French education system was less well-known in this part of the world (except for the countries of the former French Indochina). Local families were traditionally drawn to the American model of education or found themselves forbidden from attending international schools. To put it simply, it was no longer a matter of writing “French School” over the front door and waiting for the crowds to show up.
And so French schools had to rise to the challenge. Architecturally ambitious French campuses have sprung up all over the continent; campuses that take competition into account. To attract students nowadays, new French schools need swimming pools, sports fields, a wide range of extracurricular activities, high-performing IT tools etc. The importance of teaching and learning English has also been noted – with expats being tempted away by the Anglo-Saxons, bilingualism became the buzzword in French schools during the mid 2000s (only to become a dirty word in the wake of the 2012 AEFE report on languages – aka the Report on How to Shoot Oneself in the Foot).
On a great number of occasions, parents have been the driving force behind adjustments and advances in French schools, often running up against the powers-that-be in the process. Yet, despite the progress that has been made, the French education system remains a hard one to sell. While England’s boarding schools, mythical uniforms, Oxbridge and – pardon me – Harry Potter provide the English education system with readymade images of rigour, quality and excellence, France has no such equivalent. With anodyne, protean schools and universities that are absent from the world rankings (the latest Times Higher Education findings caused shockwaves, and they are not alone – whatever one might make of their questionable criteria) the French system is having a hard time communicating an image of modernity, innovation and excellence.
It is a real shame and we find the same paradigm in every domain: the Irish have marketed pubs to the world, the Italians – pizza, the Swedish – design, the Germans – cars and the English – schools. What about France?
We all know that France represents class – perfume, fashion, cuisine. The famous French Touch consists of je-ne-sais-pas-quoi mixed with a healthy dose of arrogance – it’s not easily identifiable for those who don’t know how to read the codes. Without red-checkered tablecloths, golden arches, or red lanterns to give it away, how are you supposed to recognise a French restaurant? By what you eat of course. The proof is, quite literally, in the pudding. The only way to find out if the food is any good is to dig in!
The same can be said of French schools; one only knows how good they are from the inside! I found myself in a similar situation when I arrived in Taipei, in a school where quality teaching and learning was taking place – and only a privileged happy few knew anything about it! Those on the inside knew it was an excellent school, but didn’t feel the need to talk about it. It was a school without a story to tell and, as a result, lacking a strong identity. As for the privileged happy few, well, unfortunately, there weren’t enough of them to pay the bills (another taboo in education: money is often an issue).
My very first task as head in Taipei was to communicate about the strength of French schools: the incredible work carried out by our teachers and learning assistants. In parallel, I had to spread the word about the French education system (and its “philosophy” as visiting parents so often put it). Finally, I had to tell a new story and explain why we are a unique school to the families that were interested in joining us.
And so we crossed a cultural rubicon – mixing education and marketing – following in the footsteps of our Anglo-Saxon competitors. In other articles, I will explain and elaborate on the steps we took that enabled us to double our student numbers in three years (see last week’s podcast for information about social media strategy), but for now I would like to return to the starting point of this article – should we sell education?
Personally, I believe that parents enrolling their children in any French school, and particularly in the Lycée français de Taipei, are offering them a gift. While I refuse to consider education as merchandise, I nonetheless believe that French Schools should share what it is they do so well with the greater public. It is time for French schools to throw their hats confidentially into the ring that is the education market. They have what it takes to rival other international schools, especially when it comes to the heart of the matter: the quality of teaching and learning dispensed within their walls.
Setting foot in the education market might entail putting some of our more high falutin beliefs to one side; we will need to accept that the French model is not necessarily the perfect choice for everyone. Families have the right – and indeed the duty – to study and compare the different educational options open to them before they settle on the one that is best for their child. We need to be prepared to listen, clarify, explain and convince. We need to be conscious of our strengths and our weaknesses, and emphasise the former while improving on the latter. It’s not an easy task, but the reward comes through the families that support us and are delighted with their choice of school.
Personally, I am not convinced that education and marketing make for such strange bedfellows after all and I do in fact think that there is something pure and noble in spreading the word about our French education system and what it has to offer.