Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

"Show me a school that prides values over results"

Published in Sep-Oct 2015
In their quest for commercial gains, schools are losing focus of their true mission.
Photo: Online.
Photo: Online.

There are (still) some hallowed brands that do not need any sort of advertising. In fact, the significant absence of any promotion adds to their intangible glory. They are permanent, impervious to the ravages of time.

This is the case, to some extent, in the education sector. Global giants like Harvard and Oxford, and local ones like Aitchison and Karachi Grammar School have the unique problem of turning hordes of yearning potential customers away: the greater the rejection, the higher the prestige.

This harks back to a far more innocent time, of course. A time before gigantic billboards and breathless jingles and frenzied songs and dances, all to sell a phone/a cone/a loan.


These days, barring a few relics, there is no surviving-sans-trumpet-blowing. Sadly, this reality has infected the education sector along with all the rest. Education is a product to yield a profit, a business with a bottom line. At the end of the day, it must make money.


Like many other sectors, we have witnessed a move away from small set-ups built around high quality and hard work, toward mammoth giants that have campuses like tentacles, spread across entire cities. And the game has changed accordingly.

Schools and colleges are divided into tiers, in a sense. There are the ludicrously expensive ‘designer’ institutes where admission is a privilege hard-fought and won; where high-strung parents are judged alongside their offspring, with questions around new-fangled notions like the father’s role in the child’s upbringing, the mum’s career choices and so on. There is no need for marketing here. The long queues outside the buildings and the eye-bleedingly exorbitant fees convey the message better than a 100 billboards.

Then we have the giants, born of efficiency and geared toward expansion. (I remember decades ago, City School and Beaconhouse started down the road of multiple branches. It was a brand new phenomenon back then. Confusing even, for parents and kids accustomed to one name-one school. We eyed such institutes with suspicion: how could proper standards be maintained across locations? How naïve we were!). Names like Roots and Beaconhouse are universally recognised, churning out thousands of graduates every year.

The education equation: What are students and parents searching for? A trusted name? Experienced staff? Top grades? A foreign system? Or perhaps a well-rounded experience, blending academia with an extracurricular focus?
The education equation: What are students and parents searching for? A trusted name? Experienced staff? Top grades? A foreign system? Or perhaps a well-rounded experience, blending academia with an extracurricular focus?

The crucial thing most educational institutes have not figured out is what their brand stands for. I don’t mean ‘we have gora faculty/our campus has iPads/we guarantee results!’ I mean the single, unique aspect a brand represents, that drives it forward.

Such expansion requires mass awareness. You need to get the word out there, to every neighbourhood where you are present. What does this translate into? Billboards on every street? And more importantly, what sort of message should be crafted? What are students and parents searching for? A trusted name? Experienced staff? Top grades? A foreign system? Or perhaps a well-rounded experience, blending academia with an extracurricular focus?

Therein lies the rub. Everything I listed here is functional. It is about practicalities, about resources and results.


The crucial thing most educational institutes have not figured out is what their brand stands for. I don’t mean ‘we have gora faculty/our campus has iPads/we guarantee results!’ I mean the single, unique aspect a brand represents, that drives it forward.


In short, what sort of human beings does that institution develop?

When I was a student, my school did not focus on how many As I would get (well, it did to an extent, but that was not the raison d être by far). It cared more about the kind of woman I would grow up to be. The faculty (a glorious group of intellectual, ethical spinsters) focused on our values during classes, effortlessly incorporating crucial life lessons within subjects. I learnt about honesty, integrity, and independence. I learnt how to stand up for myself, for other women, and to speak up when it was needed. Such things are not promoted or sold or marketed. They just are. They are evident in every person exposed to that system, and what could be better advertising than that?

A marked contrast, then, to the claims made by educational institutions today that focus on aspects which, while relevant, don’t strike me as truly meaningful. So there are high-tech labs and foreign-trained teachers; vast tennis courts and cafeterias; an emphasis on top results and the means to get them. And I realise these factors matter to students and parents too (especially in Pakistan); why else would we churn out kids with 20+As in O’Levels every year?

But what values will they give to the kids under their care? Will they even consider this something worth teaching? Or will everything revolve around getting grades and getting ahead?


In our current, fraught environment, where divisions upon divisions abound and where toddlers are exposed to ugliness like ethnic and sectarian strife, is it not far more vital to concentrate on the sort of beliefs and personalities children will be imbued with?


If I were a parent, I would not be swayed by claims of state-of-the-art-tech or ginormous hoardings on every corner, or (the worst!) two kids in nasal American twangs excitedly discussing a specific college. That stuff is easier to come by than the stuff that actually matters.

So give me a marketing campaign that revolves around the quality of the people they develop, not the number of grades they get. Show me an educational institute that prides values over results. I have had the fortune to spend 11 years in exactly such a place, and I am grateful for it.

Sara Qureshi is Marketing Head – Exams, The British Council.
saraqureshi75@gmail.com