School Rabbit #edinvent

Published by Tim Jefferis on March 29th, 2014

Right that's it. I've been on a run and it's cleared my head. Now I've got an idea to present to the #edinvent panel tomorrow:
The problem
Small British boarding schools like the one I work in (@OswestrySchool) are at the mercy of overseas educational consultants ('agents' in the parlance of the sector). Whilst many of these agents are decent people, a small but significant number are not. Since starting my time at Oswestry, just over two years ago, I've seen:
1. new pupils to start full A-level or GCSE courses almost unable to speak English, despite purportedly having passed our entrance tests
2. perfectly happy pupils leave half way through a course to move to another school, with little or no explanation
3. pupils arrive with no idea what option subjects have been chosen for them; sometimes the choices they'd like to make simply aren't on offer
4. communication with overseas parents fall by the wayside as agents fail in their duty to translate and pass on missives from the school
5. overseas pupils miss huge chunks of their schooling through poorly organised transport arrangements (missing the beginning of term, or leaving far too early at the end)
Agents are paid a commission usually in the form of an agreed percentage of the first term's fees. This creates perverse incentives, for example:
1. there is little incentive for agents to continue providing conscientious on-going services after the 'deal is done' and a pupil is placed
2. there is an incentive for agents to move pupils half way through a course on the flimsiest pretext in order to chase further commission from another placement
The solution
My solution involves cutting out agents and putting parents in direct contact with people in the UK who speak their own language and can give them expert, on-the-ground advice as to the best school(s) for their children.
A portal website will be set up designed to collect basic biographical information about the prospective parents and their children. To drive traffic to the site advice will be sought on search engine optimization and the site will be populated with high-quality native-language web-casts and advice about UK school choice. 'Rabbits' will also be encouraged to use native social media to spread the word.
This biographical information will be analyzed by UK based specialists (the minimum viable product doesn't envisage needing to employ anyone extra on the payroll, subsuming the early inquiries into the workload of the already extant marketing department at Oswestry School). Once a selection of suitable schools have been identified Rabbits will call parents back at an agreed time.
Rabbits are critical to the whole process and will be carefully recruited UK university students of the appropriate nationality. They will have will have been trained in the processes involved in testing, advising and matching pupils to schools. Close liaison between the Rabbits and the main UK office will ensure that parental questions are dealt with promptly and honestly. At this stage in the process:
1. Skype tests/interviews will take place to assess the candidate's suitablility for the various programmes on offer at UK boarding schools
2. The process of applying will be explained - the service offered by School Rabbit will include dealing with all the administration involved with getting a pupil out of their home country and into their first lesson (liasion about visas, uniform, term dates, fees, terms and conditions, guardians etc.)
Answers to likely questions:
What are the estimated startup costs?
These are limited to the creation of an inviting web-portal, the purchase of a suitable domain name and the production of quality native-language content. In addition there will be some search engine optimization and social media marketing costs. Plucking a figure out of the air for a MVP startup say, £5000? Crucially, though, there will be no other up-front costs. Office staff are already in the employ of the school, rabbits will be paid through commission (see below).
What is the funding model?
Agents get their commission once the first term's fees are paid to the school. I envisage a slightly different funding model: one that is cheaper for the school and cost neutral for the parent. As opposed to taking a percentage of the first term's fees the charge for finding a placement school will be the full value of the deposit demanded by the school (usually £1000). This will be paid direct to School Rabbit and held until the candidate arrives at their chosen school, after which the relevant rabbit will be paid (see below).
How will the rabbits be remunerated?
Rabbits will be recruited from university campuses, initially from Oswestry School's alumni. These students speak good English and have the advantage of having been through the UK education system themselves. The amount of work required to get a pupil placed and settled in their new school will vary, but in some cases will be extensive (multiple phone calls, e-mails etc.) In the light of this, and in view of the importance of recruiting only the highest quality rabbits and offering a premium service it is anticipated that rabbits will need to be well paid for their efforts - 50% of the deposit fee, perhaps payable on the first day of arrival of the pupil in their new school.
What is the MVP
The minimum viable product, to test the market could concentrate on just Hong Kong, a well established source region for UK boarding pupils. This would necessitate translation just into Cantonese at the outset, and would therefore limit costs and reduce risk.
Is this scalable?
Yes, there are other markets and other sectors, all of which could adopt the School Rabbit model if it proved successful - HE/FE, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. Additional services could also be offered at a monthly cost, including report/letter translation services, guardian placements etc.
What's in it for schools?
Schools get to reduce the punitive marketing and travel costs they must incur in order to fill their beds. They also get to keep all of the first term's fees and all the fees thereafter, forfeiting only the initial deposit by way of charge for the School Rabbit service. This is a significant saving for them and should encourage schools to push favour applications via School Rabbit over those via traditional agents.
What's in it for parents?
Parents get to talk and liaise with native language speakers who have been through the system themselves, who are UK based and who have direct contact with staff who are more knowledgeable and better connected than even the most conscientious overseas agent could ever be about UK schools.
How big is the potential market?
There are 367 boarding schools listed on the BAS website.

If we estimate conservatively that these schools average 500 pupils in size this means that there are 183,500 pupils in UK boarding schools at the moment. Of course, not all of the pupils in boarding schools do board: let's estimate that 50% or so do though. This leaves us with a figure of 91,750, 40% or so of whom come from overseas (see graph below).

So the potential market using these back-of-a-fag packet calculations is 36,700 pupils. Capturing 1% of this market would therefore yield a turnover of £367,000 (based on (36,700*0.001)*£1000). Added to this would be revenue from ongoing translation, mentoring and guardianship services - not taken up by all, but providing a useful additional revenue stream.

This is a good start, and the market's growing:

...and becoming ever more varied:

How will the product be brought to the attention of the potential market?
A combination of the following strategies will need to be used:
1. search engine optimization
2. social media marketing
3. piggy-backing on Oswestry School's existing overseas marketing trips

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