Finding your USP

In today’s challenging education climate, every school needs to do its utmost to stand out and be noticed, says marketing expert Justin Smith

The statistics are startling: the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests that per-pupil spending has fallen by eight per cent since 2010, while the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased by 11% in the past three years. This means it is more critical than ever to ensure your school is best placed to attract new talent, students, community partners and even investors.

Schools often fail to do themselves justice when it comes to sharing their values and messages with the wider community. But identifying and articulating these messages is incredibly important; it’s how you create a point of difference. Essentially, you’re pinpointing what it is that makes your school special – your unique selling point.

Start with ‘why’

Organisational consultant and author Simon Sinek says the most successful people and organisations understand precisely ‘why they do what they do’. In other words, they can clearly define their purpose. In his book, Start With Why, Sinek presents the idea of the ‘golden circle’, explaining that most people know what they do and how they do it. The key is to understand and articulate why.

The concept is especially true in the human-centric world of education. If you are pursuing high academic standards and positive behaviour then why are you doing it? What kind of people would you like your pupils to become? What kind of future are you trying to open up for them? If your school can really understand its ‘why’, you are well on the way to developing a set of values and key messages that makes you stand out from the rest.

Environment and context

Once you’ve defined your ‘why’, the next place to look for a possible USP is the building itself and the surrounding landscape. Do you have an interesting heritage? Is there a significant founding figure who sits at the heart of your school? Perhaps you have famous alumni. With more modern buildings, you can highlight significant concepts relating to design and architecture. This is all about trying to find something specific about your school’s environment that can be brought to life with some carefully chosen words or professional images.


Some schools are built around particular religious, political or philosophical affiliations – and this will be reflected in the teaching style and culture of the school. All schools, however, will find they work from an understanding about what is important, what is valued and what is best for children.

A simple exercise with staff and students will help draw out the things they are most proud of and the aspects of school life they feel are most important. You may be surprised by the results! This ‘values mapping exercise’ should be a quickfire session. You’re looking for emotional responses to how people feel about the school – its facilities, opportunities and inter-personal relationships. Having individuals express themselves this way is very effective and helps identify common words or phrases that sum up your school. And, of course, this is a real-life, accurate reflection of your school and not a generic one-size-fits-all marketing message.

Unique features

This is about emphasising any specialist teaching facilities. Specialist schools should highlight what their specialism brings, ensuring their status is meaningful in terms of facilities, teaching or school life. However, care should be taken not to overdo the specialism and alienate students who may not excel in that particular discipline, or parents who want reassurance that the curriculum is not narrow.

School life

We often make decisions based on emotion, and parents may decide on a school for their child because of what a place feels like. Defining the opportunities that are open to pupils, whether that’s through extra-curricular activities and trips, competitions, or regular clubs and societies, helps build a sense that there’s something more going on behind the scenes. The school community extends beyond the classroom and that’s often difficult to capture and communicate. Exam results are quantifiable, but it’s the school community that builds shared purpose and belief. Convey life at your school by using carefully selected photos and quotes from the children. This is an opportunity to show what the school offers in terms of support and improvement.

Case Study: Wymondham College, Norfolk

‘Wymondham College is the largest state boarding school in the country, with more than 1,400 students and 400 staff, set in 80 acres of Norfolk countryside. In 2014, when I was marketing director, we undertook a branding exercise to help redefine the school’s core values and messages.

I decided to involve staff and students to help identify our feelings about the school. A values mapping exercise was conducted with a selection of students from each year group and a selection of staff (from NQTs to senior teachers). They gave their reactions to four themes: functional (facilities and opportunities), emotional (feelings about the school), relationships and beliefs.

It was fascinating to find key phrases or words that were common among all participants. These included: passionate, caring and sharing, aspirational, trusting and respectful. Everything we did subsequently centered around these core values. The values were expanded into statements to create the school USP, and were incorporated into our website, prospectus and other communications. Best of all, we knew the values were genuinely meaningful because they had originated from people who worked and lived at the school.’

  • Justin Smith is MD of Chameleon Consultancy and Training Ltd, which provides marketing and fundraising support to schools. @jus_chameleon

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