Recovery through relationships and reputation
Cobham Intermediate has faced considerable challenges recovering their international student numbers following the Canterbury earthquakes. Through collaboration and building a strong reputation, they are on the road to recovery.
The issue of the 2010/2011 earthquakes is inescapable when visiting a Christchurch school. For some the impact has been irreversible, while others were more fortunate. Cobham Intermediate School was one of the lucky ones, receiving only minor damage to its buildings and grounds.
The children and their families did need support for the shock, but for most of them, school life continued as it did before.
The impact on the international student market in the city though, was significant. While only two students left Cobham directly after the quakes, it was in the following year that parents opted not to send their children to Christchurch. For Cobham this meant its healthy international programme, which had attracted more than 20 students before the quakes, fell to single digits. It's taken two years but this term they have built enrolments back up to 16.
The international market in Christchurch is beginning to show signs of recovery, and enrolments have begun to increase. Several factors have contributed to this.
The Principal, Scott Thelning, acknowledges “Cobham has a reputation for winning stuff. Academic, sporting, scholarships, science prizes - we do really well. We get very good results. Carolyn O’Byrne, International Director, works hard to make sure everyone knows about our success, and this helps to attract international students and their parents to Cobham.”
He says Carolyn has also built up the school’s reputation as a place where the children are well cared for. She endeavours to provide a steady flow of information - photos, achievement reports, feedback - to agents and parents, so they know exactly how the children are doing.
“Carolyn assures parents that she will look after their children like they are her own. There is a clear message that our pastoral care is very good.”
Having a dedicated person in the International Director’s role is also a key success factor. “That's not possible or feasible for some schools. Cobham has been fortunate to have someone full time in the role,” he says.
Scott says good communication and strong relationships underpin the success of their programme. “It’s all about relationships - if you have to have the right people doing the right things with good relationships in place.”
Coming together for the good of Christchurch
The earthquake has had an upside. Christchurch Educated, a collective of the city’s universities, PTEs, tertiary, secondary, intermediate and primary schools, now work closely together to promote pathways in education in the city. It wasn't always this way - in the past there was a reluctance to share as the schools were scared of revealing too much to other schools vying for the same students, says Carolyn. Now it is Christchurch first, the individual school second.
Group missions are focused on getting parents to reconsider Christchurch as a destination. "The aim is to get people to think about coming back to Christchurch - to whatever school they want to go to.”
Principal Scott Thelning says they primarily promote the South Island environment - the mountains, the beaches, then Christchurch, and how easy it is to live there. "The community is big enough to be a city, but small enough that people will help you to be successful,” says Scott.
He says the ongoing trips to Japan and Korea are extremely valuable for meeting the parents of current students, as well as alumni, agents and potential students and their parents.
"Relationship building is really important. You can send a million emails but really it’s all about connecting face-to-face."
As well as collaborative marketing efforts, Christchurch Educated, of which Scott is also a board member, offers collective professional development, market research and ensures initiatives from Education New Zealand are shared with the group. Funding made available by the government post-earthquake is also utilised, such as for marketing trips and scholarships.
Identify the markets that fit what you offer
Korea was, and still is, Cobham’s main market. Establishing and maintaining good relationships is very important. One agent, who has come to know the school very well, has sent her daughter to Cobham to experience firsthand what the school has to offer.
However, a contact made by Scott at an education fair in Japan two years ago has opened the door to the Japanese market.
The Natural English School is run by former Cantabrian Andrew Townsend and his Japanese wife Reiko. It offers English language classes after school and takes pre-schoolers through to secondary-age children.
Andrew visited the fair looking for a school to be able to take his students to in New Zealand, to enable them to use their English skills in an English speaking environment. He says he chose Cobham because it offered everything he wanted – quality home stays, high academic 5 standards and a short-stay programme that included both in-classroom and cultural activities. It also had the added attraction of being in his home town.
A group from Natural English has been at Cobham on a 10-day visit. The visit has given the Japanese students the experience of being immersed in a culture: of participating as pupils in a New Zealand school as well as visiting local attractions. Just the experience of having morning tea is novel, says Andrew, but it was the school disco that was the real hit, he says.
While the Japanese school group will hopefully lead to longer-stay enrolments, Scott and Carolyn are mindful that the financial side has to stack up. Financial costs include ESOL tuition, homestay fees, cultural activities, and insurance. They are also mindful not to overload teachers with too much extra work. It is important to get the balance correct.
“We also hope some of the short term students might come back the following year. One girl from last year’s group has just spent her summer holidays at Cobham. Showing pathways in education is very important. It’s not just about our sector, we are hopeful some students may come back to secondary school or university,” says Carolyn.
In deciding which markets to target, Carolyn says their first consideration is whether parents are open to sending their young children away from home to study. This is a norm in Korea and in Japan as well, but she says, there is little point in trying to attract students from countries in South America or Europe. Cobham has had long-stay students from Thailand in the past, and will continue to work with agents to attract more. Working collaboratively with the local high schools provides pathways to potential students from China.
Scott says they use agents to recruit students on their behalf, but the majority come to Cobham based on referrals and word of mouth. The success of seminars and educational fairs is difficult to measure, because the flow on effect of enrolments may not be immediate, he says.
Cobham makes positive use of former students where they can. An ex-pupil, now 20, spent two days with Scott on their stand at the Korean education fair talking about Christchurch and why she went to Cobham.
"She lived here for two years, so she could talk about her memories, how her English improved and about the whole experience.”
While secondary school students might have a say in what country and school they go to, at intermediate age it is the parents who are the decision makers.
Carolyn has been in her role for 10 years but it was only four years ago that she felt there was a need to travel to recruit students. Prior to that the students had just arrived at the gate, mostly due to word of mouth from former pupils. “But I could see that wouldn’t last so knew we had to get over there.”
“I’d read a lot but I’d never visited the market, never experienced these countries before. It gave me a whole new awareness.”
She says she now understands how important it is to experience where their students are coming from.
She has built up her marketing activities by connecting with students and their parents, then gradually forming relationships with agents. She and Scott now share the travel, spending about $15,000 on marketing a year.
Respect and being positive
The way students at Cobham Intermediate School in Christchurch celebrate success and embrace those of other cultures is obvious by the level of cheering and clapping at the Year 8 assembly. A group of 11 to 14-year olds from The Natural English School in Tokyo was departing after a two-week stay and the Cobham students made it clear they had enjoyed their visit.
The celebration of other cultures is not just because of the international students. Cobham is situated in a part of Christchurch recognised for its multiculturalism, with over 20 nationalities represented at the 670-strong school. Different faces and different cultures are such a part of the school that the students don't seem to differentiate. This means international students, even those on shorter stays, integrate fully, says ESOL teacher Di Bishop.
"They just blend in and mix in together. The Kiwi kids are really good at reaching out and
including the new students. We are a very inclusive school,” says Di.
The celebration of cultural differences is also reflected in a special role at the school.
Kay Park (Kyung-Ok) is the school's “Cultural Translator". She's Korean and has been in New Zealand for 10 years. Her role is varied but her objective specific – to ensure the students are happy and comfortable in New Zealand. Kay meets formally and informally with the Korean students, giving them the opportunity to speak to someone in their first language, making it easier for them to express any concerns, troubles or difficulties they might be having.
She says many of the problems she hears about are typical of any teenager - the difference is that the students here don't have their parents to turn to. A challenge specific to international students at the intermediate level is the shift they have to make when they arrive in New Zealand, from being primary school kids to being intermediate pupils who are expected to be more independent. Kay says because she understands the world they come from, she can help the students make this leap successfully.
Kay says it's difficult for any kid to make friends at this age “so we want to let them know, we know it is hard.”
“We’re all mothers,” says Di. “We understand what children need. We realise how important the relationship we build with the children is. The relationship with the parents, and the classroom teachers is equally as important.
“We try to make the children feel comfortable and reassure the parents that the children are experiencing success,” says Carolyn.
Originally a computer engineer, Kay has retrained as a teacher in New Zealand. She has an ongoing role at Cobham, and is "on-call" to help when needed at other schools in the city. Kay says, in her experience, the level of staff teamwork and support, and their commitment to ensuring the students have a positive experience, is special to Cobham.
Among the activities Kay participates in is an international lunch once a week where students are encouraged to bring foods close to what they would get at home. It’s an opportunity to chat over food and catch up. Kay says while not a formal meeting, it’s a chance to “see their faces” and to make sure they are okay.
ESOL teacher Di Bishop has developed a programme for her students, directly linked to what they are learning in their classrooms. When the students first arrive, the focus is on coping with the language to enable them to communicate, she says. As their skills progress, they move on to negotiating the more difficult concepts of language being covered in their homeroom classes, such as persuasive text.
She says there is excellent communication across the staff about each student and they work well together to ensure the students’ success. This is a strong part of the package, says Di; there is no ‘disconnect’ between the international programme and the rest of the school.
Cobham conducts exit interviews with all their international students and adapt their programme according to the feedback.
"We are constantly seeking to improve,” says Carolyn. An example of change implemented based on the children's feedback was around orientation: "students said they wanted more information about what it’s like to be in a New Zealand classroom. So during their first weeks and at orientation we talk a lot about group work and how classes are not so much teacher directed as in their home countries."
Another evolution is the management of homestays. While students over 10-years-old don’t have to be accompanied by parents or caregivers, many are. Until now agents have sourced homestays, with Cobham ensuring they meet Code of Practice requirements. Carolyn says 9 they are increasingly having to find their own home stays and the school is looking at the resources required to manage this new part of their business.
It’s the right thing
While Cobham is relatively multicultural, many of the domestic students have been here for a long time and are very “Kiwi-ised” says Scott. “The international students bring value to the school providing an opportunity to talk about the world they come from”.
“They can talk about how different their school is - it opens our students’ eyes. It gives our children leadership opportunities, makes them think about what it means to be a host; about how you should treat guests.”
“These people have chosen to come to our school. We all need to step up and look after them. We need to understand why they are different and why we need to look after them.”
Scott says buddy students who volunteer to look after international students go out of their way to make them feel welcome.
“We take this very seriously and do it well. It’s expected - but it’s the right thing to do.”
- Strong professional relationships within the school, with parents, with agents and with other schools in Christchurch.
- A dedicated international director.
- Embracing multi-culturalism within the school
- A programme in the ESOL class that supports the classroom curriculum
- Using alumni in marketing
- Using students’ exit interviews to assist with continual improvement
- A supportive school culture that celebrates being different.
Cobham Intermediate School
International students: 14
uition fees $13,000 a year
Administration fee: None
Homestay fee: $240 a week
Principal: Scott Thelning
International Director: Carolyn O’Byrne
ESOL teacher: Di Bishop
First language (Korean) support person: Kay Park