Seven steps to finding out how parents view your school before they enrol.

Surprisingly little subterfuge goes into a mystery shop – so take off the jewelled headdress, step away from the calabash pipe and let’s see what we can find behind the magnifying glass…

A mystery shop involves asking someone to pose as a prospective parent – choose a trusted friend or acquaintance or even a prospective parent! It’s an effective way to get objective feedback (don’t ask anyone who loves you) so you know what you can do better to create the wow factor and get parents to make your school their first choice.

Your chosen spy – sorry, helpful neighbour – will approach your school, checking out the website, speaking on the telephone and arranging a visit. There are no rules about whether or not you warn your staff, though if your expressive arts teacher is inclined to launch into a dramatic monologue over something like a baked potato shortage at lunch, maybe take all necessary steps.

Of course, you want visitors to see the real you so it is best to create a culture of readiness – an understanding of marketing, meaning being always on show but never on edge. Have some confidence – aren’t you always awesome?

Whether or not your Local Authority administers your admissions process, there is a lot you can do as an individual school to drive up pupil applications. The LA is likely to set the date from which parents can start to apply for school places but is not going to bake a lemon drizzle for your coffee morning. They will probably limit the number of schools parents can list as their preferred choices but they will almost certainly not turn out to offer a warm and welcoming atmosphere at every touchpoint as parents and children look around your school.

Selling and marketing your school (no estate agents involved – put down the For Sale sign) is your job. You need to promote your school’s USPs and communicate these to prospective new families, offering a wealth of information about why your school is the right one for their child. Recruiting a mystery shopper is a great way to check how you’re doing.

Blue Apple Education’s 7-Steps to Success

1. The Person

Choose who will conduct your mystery shop – friend, neighbour, AmDram Club secretary? – anyone independent from the school, without preconceived ideas but with a penchant for looking around schools because you ask them.

2. The Research

Ask your partner’s work colleague/mystery shopper to investigate the school and feed back on first impressions. Of course, none of us judges a book by its cover – except we all do, don’t we? Make sure your ‘cover’ – website and other promotional materials – are accessible, attractive and memorable. You want your essential qualities to be suggested in the style and colours you choose, the key words you present, the pictures, and the ease of negotiating your website. Ask yourself What the key message is that you would want a prospective parent to take away with them, and be sure that your promotional material is reflecting this.

A user journey is a path the parent takes to reach their goal when using your website… a consideration in designing a website is how the user will achieve their goal as quickly and easily as possible. Many schools use short videos – with plenty of studies showing that this captures and retains attention. Your site needs to WOW them!

3. The Enquiry

Ask your friend/mystery shopper if they were invited to book a visit and the ease and options for doing this – phone, website form, email, open day, etc. Forms should be kept simple with only essential information requested at this early stage and without complex filling-in or navigation expectations. Once your neighbour-come-spy had booked their visit how long was it before it was confirmed? Was the response friendly and professional? Was someone on to them? The best direct communications are personal, going to the parent’s email address, with a headteacher’s message, perhaps, and a warm introduction.

Get help here:

Give visitors the impression you want them there – even if you strongly suspect they are the mystery shopper your receptionist arranged.

A teacher and student of Cyril Jackson primary knitting a blue woollen blanket

4. The Visit

The big day arrives and your daughter’s dogwalker’s cousin/mystery shopper has finally arrived. This is the moment when your ‘brand’ needs to shine. Branding is how you show off what you stand for, what the character and style of the school is – your remarkable. With this in place your mystery shopper will be reporting back that the school felt, smelt, and dealt everything they want in a school – or even that they quickly discovered it wasn’t for them because it was open, authentic and easy to view. If someone insists on something you simply don’t have and don’t want, then wish them well – the school in the next town has Olympic grade sports equipment for 4 year olds and in the next town they serve baked potatoes every day.

Do your thing but do think about who conducts the tour – principle, pupil, expressive arts teacher – and how long it takes. Did you show them enough? Or too much? How were they greeted and treated? There are ways to add to any visitor’s experience such as videos to view, opportunities for questions or quiet ‘left alone’ time. Always remember to make clear what the parent should do next.

5. The Engagement

After it’s all over, parents want to know that you care – they expect some follow-up. Ask your pizza deliverer/mystery shopper when and what they received in terms of follow-up. It’s important you stay fresh in their minds, especially as they may be visiting other local schools. They might genuinely want to ask something they forgot on the day – so make them feel ok about that.

6. The Nod

Was the not-actually-a-prospective parent asked if they will be putting the school as their first choice? If you talk about this openly on the spot you have a chance to answer any concerns or objections, or to put straight any misunderstandings.

Getting an idea of how many parents have chosen your school provides good projections of pupil numbers long before these are made available by the Local Authority. If projected numbers are low, you have a chance for additional promotion – and your friend/mystery shopper’s feedback will give you a good idea of how to increase its effectiveness.

7. The Testimony

Once your mystery shopper has gone back to work in the local newsagent’s, you have all the information gained to put into a report. Keep it brief and don’t pick on anyone personally, whatever your hairdresser/mystery shopper said (e.g. it was the general greeting that felt officious, not Lionel from Humanities).

More important than anything is to act on your findings. What could you do better? What’s not working effectively? Who should ring Blue Apple Education to get their help?

We are here to support schools so if you have a question or just need some advice, arrange a completely free and no-obligation chat with one of our experts

You might also be interested in…