Designing the future of school admissions
By David Willows

The changing nature of schools

There is no doubt that over the past 60 years, the Advancement function in schools across the world has evolved from its more traditional roots in fundraising, alumni relations, communications and marketing. 


Today, Advancement professionals are the people in schools who are responsible for brand and reputation management, visual identity, public relations, marketing, crisis communications, website development, publications, data privacy, admission and enrolment management, alumni relations, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, events, and much more. Sometimes large, complex teams carry out these functions. Sometimes many (or all) of these functions and duties fall on the shoulders of a single person.


Keeping track of this ever-expanding list of tasks and responsibilities is daunting, even for the most seasoned Advancement professional. So, one day, while thinking about and looking for an organising framework for each one of these individual tasks, I found myself looking for a simpler way to describe what I do for a living.


Introducing the Periodic Table of Advancement

The genius of the original Periodic Table of physical elements is the manner in which it brings order and pattern to the apparent haphazard and chaotic nature of the physical universe. So, I started to wonder whether we could be so bold as to break advancement down to a series of essential, irreducible, yet related elements. Just as the atomic structure of the universe has been mapped, and just as it has been determined that some elements lie in familial juxtaposition to one another, I realised that there was indeed a simple harmony, connection, and pattern to all of the work that we do as Advancement professionals in schools. This led to the development of the Periodic Table of Advancement.


Everything we do, I thought, is organised around three fundamental pillars or activities: story, people, and process. We tell the story of our school. We help people find their place in that story ‒ as prospective parents, students, teachers, donors ‒ and we manage a set of processes that enable these two things to happen. That’s just about the sum of it.


Imagining the future together

The Periodic Table of Advancement began as a way of defining what we did. But it soon became a way of redesigning our work. Even for those of us who are used to tried and tested formulae, it was as if the Periodic Table of Advancement was encouraging us to go back into the lab and redesign our craft; to have the courage to dismantle what worked in the past and ‒ notwithstanding the occasional ‘explosion’ ‒ experiment a little.


Take admissions, for example. We work in schools that have begun to redefine learning around key principles. We know how children learn, and our classrooms today, for the most part, no longer reflect that old idea of simply depositing information or generating efficient workers for an industrial age. Yet many of our admission offices are still stuck in that old industrial model of simply providing endless amounts of information to prospective families.


We began to imagine together and asked ourselves a series of questions:


  • What if we viewed the admission process as a learning opportunity for families?

  • What if we reconfigured the admissions office as a classroom?

  • What if we started ‘framing’ what families see when they go on tour?

  • What if we got better at understanding how our brains work and how people make choices when deciding on a new school?


Imagination in action

Over the past three years, mainly as a result of giving enough time and space to such matters, these questions have literally transformed the way we manage admissions at our school. In our quest to redesign the core of the admission task, we found ourselves chipping away at what we knew, creating a truly interactive experience in which each member of the prospective family, during an interview when they visit our school, plays a crucial role.


Imagine that you are watching a family enter the admissions office at the International School of Brussels. Apart from the unique design of the space, it is almost immediately clear that this is not so much about receiving information about our school, as it is an opportunity to talk about learning and what is important to the family when choosing a school.


The family is asked to look at 24 tiles on a large interactive screen in front of them. Each tile contains something that might be important to them when choosing a school, for example friends, playground, academic results and teachers. Each member of the family is invited to select a tile and identify what’s important to them. Everyone gets a vote. The family is then asked to consider all the tiles that have been chosen and put them into priority order. So, even if dad has chosen ‘tuition fees’ as an important factor, he may find himself in a conversation with his nine-year-old daughter who has selected ‘friends’. Of course, there are no right answers. The point is, the family is having a conversation that they haven’t had before ‒ and every member of the family has something to contribute. The point is, we are also learning to listen and not feel compelled to speak.


Looking back, it might appear that we were consciously advocating for the ‘gamification’ of admission; applying video game principles to improve user experience and user engagement. But this would be to claim far too much. Maybe we had simply stumbled upon a good idea by accident. Maybe it was just because we were giving space for the new idea to emerge.


We’re still developing the experience as we go, but by giving time to the original idea and incubating it a little, we have uncovered a new formula that has changed the way we think about this particular Advancement task, forever.

Dr David Willows is Director of Advancement at the International School of Brussels  Read his blog at:

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