How to: a guide to addressing decreasing pupil numbers

Victoria Cameron

Senior Account Director

As an education practice, over the past year, we’ve had numerous conversations with our school clients as to how they can effectively address the growing challenge of falling pupil numbers.

Schools Week previously reported that over the next decade, the number of pupils in state-funded schools is expected to decrease by 5.2 per cent. However, many schools across the country are already experiencing this decline and at risk of closure, pointing to lower birth rates, Brexit and migration away from cities due to the pandemic, as contributing factors.

On School Business Leaders Day, we’re sharing our top tips on how schools can best position themselves to address this challenge.

Understand your target market

As a school business leader, you may think you have an in-depth understanding of what prospective parents want from their child’s school, or even that you have an accurate assessment of how the school is perceived. However, our experience has shown that there can often be a disconnect between these factors.

For example, a survey we conducted with current parents for a north London school revealed that parents wanted to know more about the extra-curricular opportunities available to their child. Paired with market research which looked at the decision-making factors for prospective parents, which also found that a wide variety of extra-curricular opportunities was important – it provided the school with an evidence base from which to plan promotional activity to highlight its strong extra-curricular offering, alongside other key factors such as exam results, location and positive school culture.

The priorities of parents will be nuanced with each catchment area however, some common threads have been identified by the National Foundation for Educational Research, and provide school business leaders with a useful starting point:

Top five factors for parents when choosing a school for their child

  1. Location
  2. A school that most suits their child/children
  3. Discipline / behaviour that promotes effective learning
  4. Ofsted inspection rating
  5. Well-qualified teachers


Understanding your target market is crucial, not only to ensure the school’s offering is as closely aligned to their interests as possible, but so you can develop more effective key messages that play into parents decision-making process and leverage these insights to your advantage.

Strengthen your digital footprint

In this digital age, having a strong online presence is increasingly important, and schools are no exception. As a first step, consider the outcomes of your research into understanding your target audience and the key messages that have emerged from this. Then assess how these could be better incorporated into the website’s copy and make the appropriate updates.

The imagery on your website is also important, and while a polished and professional appearance speaks volumes, what speaks even more loudly are impactful photographs and videos that showcase the school’s positive culture, the opportunities available to students and its inclusive and diverse learning environment.

Improving the functionality, user experience and SEO performance of your website can also play a key role in improving the school’s digital footprint, making it easier for prospective parents to find you in Google search results.

Alongside your website, social media provides additional avenues to disseminate your key messages and positive school and student stories to your target audiences. For example, you can share news about strong exam results, a positive Ofsted inspection, what the school is doing to celebrate an awareness day, updates on club activities or individual student successes.

While these platforms will likely reach current parents, regularly sharing these stories in this way will also boost engagement with parents and help mobilise them as advocates for your school. For prospective parents who look to these channels as part of their research, they will then also find a stream of regular, positive news about the school.

Shout about your success

Positive PR is a great way to elevate your school’s good news stories so that a wider audience, including prospective parents within the catchment area, can hear about the great work you do. Engaging with local media is the best way to achieve this, sharing news about upcoming (virtual) events, student achievements, interesting school initiatives or positive Ofsted reports, and using the refined key messaging as a framework.

Regular positive stories in local and regional press not only celebrate your school’s success but highlight the benefits and opportunities available to students and the wider community. Remember to always join-up your communications and share coverage across your social media channels to further amplify the work you do to maximum effect.

In order to develop a communications plan which effectively reaches your target audiences, it is vital to identify and analyse perceptions amongst both current and prospective parents so that the school can align with these interests and decision-making considerations as much as possible. And, whilst this isn’t an exhaustive list of tactics, each of these steps can feed into the foundations for a strategy to help boost your school’s profile and in turn, drive up pupil enrolment figures.

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PLMR’s crisis communications experience is second to none, and includes pre-emptive and reactive work across traditional and social media channels. We work with a range of organisations to offer critical communication support when they are faced with difficult and challenging scenarios.