Collaboration vs competition
By Sharleen Samuelson

Every year, Raha International School is invited to present at the Abu Dhabi School and Nursery Show along with all the other schools and nurseries in the city. It is a massive event for parents to get the opportunity to talk to senior leaders, as well as admissions and marketing staff, and compare schools offerings all in one location. What I see at this show, is parents trying to find a school that will care, nurture, and provide a future for their child’s specific needs. No single school can provide for the unique interests, abilities, needs and expectations of every child.


Admissions in a competitive market

Raha International School is in a great position. It is the only fully International Baccalaureate school in the country rated ‘Outstanding’, and has been oversubscribed for years. However, we also recognise that the international school landscape in the United Arab Emirates is becoming more and more competitive. New schools are popping up every year, even though many expatriate families are leaving. According to ISC Research, many new schools are struggling to fill their seats and even some of the more established schools that used to have waiting lists have started advertising. This environment can lead to a cut-throat mentality where each new child on the register is a ‘win’ for the school, and each leaving child, a ‘loss’. I’ve seen some schools react in fear to their shrinking roster with questionable marketing strategies, including spreading mischievous rumours about their competition or making promises they know they can’t keep. It’s always very telling when I get a family on a tour mention what they have heard about us from the other schools they have visited.


I won’t deny that making sure your school has reached target and is financially stable is our first order of concern as admissions professionals. However, I believe we can shift the mindset from seeing our schools as winners and losers to an outcome where it’s the children that are the ultimate winners. It should be the role of all admissions professionals to ensure that the information they give to parents is overwhelmingly objective. Instead of weaponising market research against each other, we can employ it as a tool to ensure children are placed where they will flourish. Admissions professionals can become advisers and advocates for families, whether they end up putting their child in their school or not. We can achieve this by reframing how we see our ‘competition’ and focus instead on collaboration, or as some call it, ’coopetition’.


Set the example

In addition to admissions managers, heads of school are also key in creating links with other schools. They set the tone and example for collegial relationships. Our Executive Principal has led the way in strengthening relationships with other school leaders in the city. They meet monthly to discuss issues regarding school regulation, share best practice and discuss timely issues that affect all schools. When issues arise, this relationship allows them to collaborate on solutions and collectively represent their schools to the relevant higher authorities. This has been very successful in supporting school efficiencies and effectiveness. It was with his strong encouragement that, this year, we established a city-wide network of heads of admissions where we regularly exchange information and support in order to meet the needs of all our families as one learning community, as opposed to separate competing entities.


Know the market

It is important to know your families as well as know other schools. The demographics of Abu Dhabi are constantly changing. A few years ago, we had a higher than normal number of expatriate families leaving. This has opened more places for local students at a time when the government is looking to nationalise its workforce and when there is a greater interest among local families in a global education. Through the years, we have also had an influx of certain nationalities as different companies win contracts. Knowing the schooling systems and understanding the expectations of these families can help us find the ‘right fit’ school for their children.


Gathering information on other schools and being aware of their fee structures, curriculum, demographics, facilities and offerings is also essential. There are many times a family walks through the door, takes one look at our posted fees and gets ready to walk out again. By knowing the fees of other schools, I can quickly redirect them to schools that I know might be right for them. Instead of feeling discouraged as they walk away, they feel hopeful and supported. It also ensures that I know what makes us distinctive and prevents me having to ‘oversell’. It helps to check all those superlatives we love to use like ‘best’ or ‘only’; nothing is worse than making a claim about your school only to have a parent, who has already visited all the other schools, correct you. 


Be an advocate and adviser

I follow parent discussion groups on Facebook and other forums to answer questions parents may have. I will also always meet with a parent, regardless of enrolment availability, to listen to their concerns and offer advice. Parents have a lot of questions about procedures that apply to any school that I can help to answer. This raises the profile of our school and shows that we are willing to help parents whether they are in our community or not. It is also a great way to stay current as to the needs and concerns of parents. I also keep a good list of other community-related resources that I can share with families. This could be special needs support, tutoring, or enrichment classes. Parents really appreciate it if you address their child’s needs above and beyond school.

In short, I advocate collaboration over competition. We owe it to children and their families to be professional and caring. The best companies across all industries talk to each other, share ideas and market research. They will still keep a few things close to their chest, but collaboration results in improved industry reputation and, most importantly, improved outcomes for students and the community.

Sharleen Samuelson is Head of Admissions and Enrolment at Raha International School in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates You can connect with her on LinkedIn: .

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