A business-like focus on pastoral care
Attracting international students to a ‘model’ school – not yet 10-years-old – with new buildings and top-class technology may appear relatively easy. But hosting over 100 students that need to be enrolled, assessed, have timetables written for and homestays found, brings a range of challenges.
At Botany Downs Secondary College, the international programme is run as a distinct programme from the rest of the school. The international staff manage all aspects from enrolment to timetabling and finances.
Having a business focus, and the systemization of administrative processes, are key to Botany Downs’ success, says International Student Manager Jennifer Kirkham.
With a background as both a secondary teacher and in the corporate sector, Jennifer’s focus is on ensuring the international programme is financially and academically successful.
Jennifer says a school embarking on international student recruitment needs, at a minimum, a business plan. She has a five-year rolling strategic plan and annual marketing plans, which are constantly reviewed.
“You need to work out what your goals are, how many students you want, where they are going to come from, how you are going to get them. You need to identify what staffing you need to achieve your goals – and evaluate it every year to make sure you are on track.”
She estimates they return about 40 per cent of the student tuition fee to the school.
“If you had fewer than 20 students, it would be difficult to be profitable.”
The human resource
Botany Downs has a relatively well-resourced international programme with eight on the team. Two administrative staff work a total of 47.5 hours, two homestay coordinators do 20 hours each a week, and the Dean of International Students works 16 hours a week. A separate Dean and support person for Chinese students works 20 hours per week, including student and marketing support.
Even so Jennifer says they are still stretched. “It would be great to have a guide that said “every student equates to so many hours per week”. I think it needs to be somewhere between 1.5 and 2 hours per student, per week, excluding ESOL.
“If this was a business, with the turnover we have, there would be many more staff. There would be managers, marketers/sales staff/relationship managers, financial staff – international directors do all those jobs and it’s a big workload.”
The person running the international department has to have the skills to run it like a business, she says.
But it’s not easy to find someone with both an education and a sales/marketing/business background who can span the strategic and operational sides of the enterprise, she says.
If staff don’t have the skills when they are employed, putting structures in place to upskill staff is critical, she says. Though often professional development required is not so easily accessed in the education sector as it would be in business.
The Dean of Chinese students was appointed two years ago. She’s a native Chinese speaker and provides teacher-aide support in the ESOL department as well undertaking marketing into China and providing support to the Chinese students.
“As our Chinese numbers increased we needed someone to help us navigate into this market. As a New Zealand resident she can relate really well to Kiwis as well as Chinese.”
Jennifer says the Dean of Chinese students Kathy Kuang has proved very beneficial in identifying the best agents to work with, consolidating their marketing efforts and helping to select the best students from those who apply.
Qualify your leads first
International student numbers have grown from just nine when Jennifer began in 2006 to over 100 now.
The goal is about 110 and while Botany Downs is in the advantageous position of having a near full quota of international students and can be selective about who they enrol, they still apply a critical approach to their marketing, fully researching potential markets and qualifying agents and leads before leaving New Zealand.
She says schools sometimes spend a lot of money on international trips visiting agents without qualifying their leads first. In many cases, agents will already have sufficient schools on their books to meet demand so visiting them is a waste of time, she says. But it can be hard to find this out in advance.
“You need to do as much as you can before-hand to ensure the lead has real potential.” Their five-year strategic plan focuses on managing risk. For example, when they began enrolling international students, 75 per cent were Korean. That market has since collapsed and the majority of our students now come from China.
“Some markets are maturing but we are always looking at new markets and where the next opportunity will be.”
Many countries are still untapped, she says. They assess each potential market on a range of factors, such as whether there is a culture of students studying abroad. “If they are already going to Canada they might come here. They might not be coming here just because they don’t know about us.
“Then you need partners. There needs to be a network of active education agents, or you have to create one. There needs to be an education or political system that allows students to study away. Once you’ve done some analysis, then you have to go there and talk to agents and do your research yourself.”
She says they invest heavily in time and money opening up these new markets, committing to each for at least three years before determining whether it is successful or not.
Agents are their main source of students, though some markets, such as Thailand have grown based on word of mouth. She says fairs in themselves seldom work in terms of direct recruitment, but they are an opportunity to research into a market and are a way of supporting agents in a region. “We need to understand what will make them successful and support that.”
She says in a new country, an education fair might draw the first students and create initial demand or awareness of your school. Once demand has been established for a school, agents usually appear to facilitate the relationship.
An area of business where schools are particularly weak, she says, is competitor analysis. “We don’t analyse our competition outside New Zealand. For example, we make decisions to hike fees in a vacuum. We’re up there with the most expensive Canadian schools; we need to stay competitive and we need to be much smarter. We perceive we have something here that students can’t get elsewhere. But there are competitors offering great education and outdoor experiences too.”
While other schools may think being located in Auckland makes attracting students easier, Jennifer says it is harder to differentiate from others in the market.
“Technology is part of our difference. Being a new school we are completely wireless and we are technology partners with Microsoft, which we can promote.”
Jennifer says the school prides itself on providing outstanding customer service – not just to the students when they are at the school, but their parents and agents.
“Along with fast response times, it’s about making personal connections and building trust –we try to under promise and over deliver. And we really look after our students well.
“And it is a new school, a lovely school, that everyone loves and where students are focused on learning, which is great.”
This means they can afford to be picky when it comes to admitting students, she says. “I believe if you set a high quality standard, then word gets out not to send some kids.”
The business-like approach at Botany Downs is exemplified by the recent in-house development of administrative processes that capture knowledge and streamline the extensive workload involved in enrolling and managing over 100 students a year.
Jo Delaney is one of the two administrative staff on the team, and led the development of procedures to record the group’s roles and activities in ‘One Note’.
“When I arrived there were a lot of people who kept different information in their heads. I come from the corporate world where you are focused on making money. This is a moneymaking business and we needed some processes to reduce risk.
“I introduced the idea of procedures and the need to document information. At the time our Dean was very IT focused. He came up with the One Note calendar-driven online tool.”
Every process undertaken by any of the international staff has been documented and diarised, from visa applications and enrolment processing, to reports, scheduling, uniforms, homestay and pastoral processes, leaver reports and the leaving process.
“It’s made a huge difference,” says Jo. “When new staff have arrived they have been able to easily see what’s happening when and what needs to be done. We structured this by role originally but we are moving to a function-based system. Often tasks will involve more than one person so there will be a task owner responsible for following it through.”
Everything is hosted on a central server and based around a calendar. Planning for each week is based on the events and processes in the calendar. At the end of each term the team looks back and identifies areas for improvement. “We never say we are satisfied. We are always looking to see what we can do better. We’re a very disciplined team.”
Jo says One Note is an-end-to-end solution that they run completely within the office, minimising the need for involvement from the wider school administration.
“Without this process driven approach we would struggle with the number of students we manage,” she says.
They also process all visa applications and renewals online, offering a faster and cheaper service to their students. While this is beneficial for students, it’s a huge benefit to staff too, says Jo, because it reduces waiting times, workload, and stress because they know exactly where the students’ visa applications are and when they will expire. “If they need their visa renewed, to have a police check or a medical, we can make sure the student does that while they are in their home country. This way we know what’s going on, we’re driving this and we’re not chasing the student or the agents.”
A culture shock – for the homestay family
Christine Ogborn is one of two homestay coordinators who work 20 hours a week.
Finding homestays for their students can be difficult, she says. “People don’t always understand what’s involved. There is a lot more to it than just having people staying in their home who need feeding three times a day.”
She says they look for families that are flexible, have a good understanding of different cultures or a willingness to learn. They look for warmth, families that are active, and she says she is particularly interested in how the family interacts together.
With a background in foster care, Christine says she relies a lot on ‘gut feel’ when interviewing prospective families. “I take that experience with me when I go into a family. I want to know how comfortable they make me feel in their home and how they interact with their own children.”
She says even if homestay families no longer have children at home, it helps if they have had children to understand the student’s needs. If they’ve never had teenagers it can be a bit of a shock – as it can be to older families who brought up children in another generation.
She says families may be upset if the student spends a lot of time in their bedroom but they may have come from a culture where children are expected to be studying in their bedrooms all evening. “Some families can’t get their head around that. So the family distances themselves and the student says they are not being looked after. It can be very difficult.”
“I took in a student myself (from another school) because I wanted to experience it for myself. I realised how much effort had to be put in – and you may get very little in return.”
Botany Downs operates under a whānau structure, with all students belonging to a ‘house’. Each whānau is housed in one of the school’s teaching blocks, where students have lockers and share modern common spaces equipped with microwaves and kitchens. In a new school like Botany, the classrooms surrounding the common areas have glass partitions and sliding doors. Students can spill out into the common areas in break-out groups and still be seen by the teacher.
International Student Dean Andrea Donovan says having the whānau leaders onside and looking out for international students’ interests is very important to ensuring academic success.
“We monitor their progress quarterly. Ideally I’d know exactly where the students are at any time. In the most part we do. Mainly we try to make sure every student is treated as an individual.”
She liaises with both the ESOL staff and subject teachers to ensure the students are receiving the English teaching they need, and additional support if required.
But she says, they are in the “lucky situation” where the majority of their students succeed – and there is plenty of support for any who are struggling.
As well as an ESOL teacher aide for the classroom, they might contact parents and homestay families and encourage students to use English. Or encourage them to take additional ESOL classes after school or in the holidays at local language schools with which Botany Downs has developed partnerships.
“Their language skills may mean that in Year 11 they mightn’t succeed but by the time they are in Years 12 and 13 they have caught up.”
The most important part of her job is being there for the students, she says. “Kids can approach me and they know I’m on their side – but the whole department shares that role.
“We care for our kids. We know their names, even though we have over 100 students. We have compassion for them – it is such a difficult time. We make sure we have a smile on our faces whenever we see them. Making sure they understand you understand.”
She says the teachers at Botany are generally very positive and supportive and as a multicultural school international students often blend right in. “Our teachers are aware that international students are the source of the revenue that pays for many extra resources. It is really gratifying when they talk about how much they are enjoying the international students, and the insights and perspective that they bring to classes.”
A student’s perspective
Filipe Feja, from Frankfurt, has been at Botany for 12 months. He had the choice of secondary schools in English-speaking countries. Britain was too close – if something went wrong, his parents would too quickly be on a plane, he says. He could have gone to the United States, but his options for schools were limited. By coming to New Zealand he got to choose which school he could attend. He wanted to be part of a big city – but not too big, and a school with both a good academic and sporting reputation. Being a totally new school also helped, he said.
He says the focus on technology at the school is also important. “Technology is very important in society. It is very good for students to learn this.”
He has easily made Kiwi friends. “New Zealanders are very open, very welcoming. The people are open. They help with my course work and its okay to ask questions.”
- Run the international operation like a business – employ staff with the right marketing, sales, administration skills for the job – or up-skill as necessary.
- Analyse the competition outside New Zealand – we are competing internationally.
- Finding a point of difference involves identifying what the school has to offer and the customer service you offer.
- Do your homework on the market before rushing off overseas. Once a lead is qualified, then visit.
- Personalise the experience for all international students – even when you have more than 100.
- Find homestays that understand teenagers, and have an interest in other cultures. Find out for yourself how comfortable they make you feel and how they interact with each other.
- Put in place systems and processes that capture knowledge and information, so information is not lost.
- Allowing 1.5 – 2 staff hours per week per student is a good rule of thumb.
Botany Downs Secondary College
Co-educational secondary school
100-120 international students
Tuition fee: $14,000 a year
Homestay fee: $250 a week
Principal: Mike Leach
International Student Manager: Jennifer Kirkham
Dean of International Students: Andrea Donovan
Dean of Chinese Students: Kathy Kuang
Administrator: Jo Delaney
Administrator: Helen Manoylovic
Homestay Coordinators: Christine Ogborn and Noelle Hamilton
Korean Student Support: Raymond Cha