Creating culture from the inside out

John Weeks became Head of Scots All Saints College shortly after the merger of two rival schools. SMJ talked with John about how he brought two communities together.

SMJ: Paint a word picture for us of Scots All Saints College.
JW: We’re in the beautiful city of Bathurst and we have two campuses, one on each side of the river, encompassing over 200 acres. On one campus, we have just over 400 students across Prep, Junior School (Kindergarten to Year 4) and Middle School (Years 5 to 8), along with Middle School boarding. On our other campus, we have approximately 350 students in our Senior School (Years 9 to 12), including boarding.

SMJ: What has been your pathway along the educational leadership journey?
JW: I started my career with the New South Wales Department of Education as a targeted graduate, moving through the various ranks of that system for my first 12 years of teaching. I then had the opportunity to be the founding Head of Hunter Valley Grammar School, which was a real privilege. From there I became the Head of The Illawarra Grammar School, rebuilding and growing enrolments after a period of downturn for the whole area. Then it was on to Knox Grammar School where I built on the work that had gone before to bring transformation and renewal. After 15 years, my wife and I decided I wouldn’t take another long-term contract, and we began our own education consultancy. This led to our being approached to work with the Presbyterian Church to bring staff together in the amalgamation of The Scots School Bathurst and All Saints’ College Bathurst. When the Head decided to retire, the Council asked me to take it on and help settle the merged school and assist in developing strategic plans.

SMJ: Having led startup, turnaround and established schools, what have you found different about the marketing challenge of leading Scots All Saints College?
JW: The interesting and challenging thing here is that the two schools were competitors — arch enemies, even — for around 75 years, and each had tried to define its position as being different from the other. So, when the Presbyterian Church bought The Scots School, it was quite a shock to both school communities and there was an awful lot of emotional trauma on both sides. There were concerns about which culture was going to dominate, so we had to start on the inside, communicating, “Actually, we’re forging a new way forward and there will be elements of both.” We had to be deliberate about the symbolism of “the existing is gone, the new has been forged,” and we had to develop a new mission. The Presbyterian Church had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do, in terms of the school being openly and intentionally Christian in the community.

So, we first had to pull these things together internally. We had to get leadership happening, relocate staff, get them familiar with a new place of work and settled in teams that were a blend of the two schools. Then it was helping the students and parents adjust, and building one community from two. All of which was a very big challenge and a different experience to anything I’d done before. And while you will always have people who will never come on board, you just have to accept that and keep pushing on.

Interestingly, the students were the first to settle in, to adapt, because they suddenly had a lot more friends and there were enough students to form viable sports teams and an orchestra. We were able to run more subject choices and we were successful in obtaining grants to develop our STEM education, which has enabled the building of a whole new facility.

So, as the school has been coming together, the community has seen this building happening and people are saying, “Wow, the future is looking better, something new is happening.” And so at that level, there’s been a lot of excitement, including around the fact that the school is moving away from just the traditional view of education and is embracing new ideas that are going to be really beneficial to their children.

SMJ: With so much needing to be done internally to make sure the school is healthy and ready to go forward, how much thought were you able to give to what the outside world might be thinking?
JW: Key to any school’s success are enrolments, and you’ve got to get your story out there. I had identified a number of key areas that I thought needed rapid improvement. One of them was boarding, and I could see that we had the opportunity there to really improve the facilities, the structures, the programs and the care for the students. I could see that agriculture was something highly valued by people in the region, and we had the land and the beginnings of facilities to really work on that. Academic excellence was obviously also important.

We basically had to get the messages out through all the different media platforms about what we were doing, that the school was safe and secure for the future, and that it was a ‘one stop shop’ where the children could start in Prep and go all the way through to Year 12.

We got these stories out there using traditional print media, Facebook, TV and radio — I went on radio every fortnight to update people about what was happening. We’ve had some strong successes, but it’s got to continue; we can’t sit back and say, “we’ve arrived”.

As the Head, you’ve got to look at every aspect of your operation, every aspect of your community. You’ve got to make informed decisions and then go out there and do the best you can with the team and resources you’ve got. It starts and finishes with you; that’s what leadership is all about. What do leaders do? They lead.

SMJ: How would you explain school marketing to an aspiring Head, to somebody who hasn’t been in the seat yet? What do they need to know?
JW: They need to know the region and the environment in which they are operating, because what might work in one place won’t necessarily work in another. You need to know your clients and your potential clients, and understand what people really want from your school. One of the things I believe people want universally and above all else is for their children to be developed academically, in their confidence, socially and emotionally to the best they can be. They want to know that everything will be done by that school to grow and develop their children so that when they leave school they have the opportunity to successfully move into the next step of their lives — that they come out with options. If you keep your eye on that, then everything else starts to fall together. If the parents feel confident your school’s going to be there for them in that way, they’re happy to go along with changes to programs or other new ideas that you might want to bring in, because they’ve got confidence that you’re going to do that for their children.

SMJ: As the Head, who has to lead the marketing, how do you build that intelligence, the knowing and understanding of the parents’ desires?
JW: One of the key things is, as the Head, you have to show you value that. You do that by the way you talk about education, the fact that it’s about giving children the power to go forward. The vast majority of parents, if not all, are aspirational for their children; they want them to do well and they’re prepared to pay for it. That’s a huge investment and a sacrifice for many of them, so they want to see value for money.

And that value is going to be in the way their children are taught and cared for, the opportunities they’re being given and that sense of belonging. Parents need to know you understand that, internally your staff need to value it and talk about it, and that flows down to your students who start talking about it with other students.

You want to hear the voice of your clients, so we did a major survey of parent, student and staff satisfaction. I knew we had to look at how we were going, how what we were doing was being perceived, and we also had to be brave enough to hear the truth. It was overwhelmingly positive but there were a good dozen things where the responses said we could do better. So that’s become a focus for improvements this year. You don’t want the client running the show, but if you’re saying you’re offering something and you’re falling short in their eyes, you need to know that and address it.

SMJ: What do you think is lacking in how Heads learn to lead marketing at their school?
JW: First, they become too insular, so they’re not looking at what’s happening globally. They become too focused on their nearest competitors and think, “I’ve got to emulate them or do something better.” They can also unfortunately become conditioned by the organisations they belong to, because they all tend to speak the same language and fear the same things. I have found with various associations that there is almost peer pressure to maintain the status quo. When you start to move and do things, people sometimes get a bit annoyed with you. It’s often where people are operating under old paradigms and not wanting to break out or do something different. New Heads particularly feel this pressure to conform, but we’re all independent, we all do things our own way.

Importantly, Heads need to know their region, their community, what will resonate with and appeal to them, as well as what they can actually do. And there’s got to be that authenticity. They need to be courageous to do things that will best serve their community and stay focused on what their goals are. And for goodness’ sake, don’t try and be the same as someone else.

SMJ: What is the most valuable marketing communications lesson you’ve learned in your career?
JW: Take the time to plan. Look at your marketing communications through different lenses, thinking about your target audience. Plan your campaigns and your marketing spend around your calendar, rather than taking a scattergun approach. It’s really important. Take your time and plan.

insight applied

  • Work from the inside out to shape a culture.
  • Don’t underestimate the capacity and influence of your students in creating and communicating culture.
  • Be courageous and don’t try to be the same as someone else.
  • Don’t be scattergun — take the time to plan your marketing communications.

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