Significant difference in how Australian public and private schools market themselves:Why?

By Trevor McCandless

Schools increasingly market themselves. Because elite private schools have always done so, most previous school marketing research in Australia has focused upon this small group of schools. However changes in parental choice in Australia have meant that more schools are looking at how they can market their services and enhance their image, and in doing so increase their share of the ‘right’ students. International research has shown that since all schools want to attract easy and cheap to educate students, school-marketing tends to all look much the same.

I decided to have a closer look at how schools market themselves in Australia to see if there were any differences between schools. I analysed the school prospectuses and videos from 31 state, non-government, Catholic, rural and elite private school websites.

All presented an idealised vision of how schools want to be seen. And literally a vision, since photographs make up the vast majority of the available space in these texts. The question is what do these images say about the education on offer at various schools and also the presumed educational preferences of parents?

I discovered systematic differences in how schools market themselves and these differences depended on the social class of the students likely to attend the school. These differences reflect the kinds of discipline that parents are likely to expect to be enacted. This presumed ‘need for discipline’ has impacts on every aspect of the images selected.

The lower a school’s ICSEA, the more likely it is to show students engaged in concentrated school ‘work’, so much so that students were less likely to be shown ‘playing’ sport, but rather photographed doing exercises. On the other hand, the higher a school’s ICSEA the less likely its students are shown engaged in academic work, instead being shown playing sport, on camps or travelling overseas.

State schools are much more likely to select images whose content matches the genre of documentary photography. Non-government schools, in contrast, select images that stress relationships and that display students outside the classroom or school grounds. Almost the only schools showing children laughing were non-government ones.

These differences in preference for discipline even extended to the photographic techniques used. In higher ICSEA schools students were mostly shown in candid, slice-of-life images. The impression given that the photographer had just happened upon these students as they were working, with the joy of their being at school shown in the smiles on their faces. The point is that these students appear to naturally belong at school.

In lower ICSEA schools students are more likely to be posed in photographs, that is, told where to sit, how to smile, what to hold and where to look. Even the style of photography used implies the extent of external and imposed control these students are assumed to need. These students do not appear to be a natural part of the school environment, they seem more like tourists.

Also schools show very different images of how teachers interact with students. In total three-quarters of non-government and only slightly over half of state schools showed images of teachers teaching. Teachers can either teach to an entire classroom, to a small group of students or one-to-one. State schools have a broad mix of images from each of these three categories. One quarter of state schools have images of teachers teaching entire classrooms; a quarter have images of teachers teaching one-to-one; and a third show teachers teaching to small groups. That is to say, if state schools display images of teachers teaching at all, they are almost equally likely to show teachers teaching in one of these three alternate ways. This is not the case for non-government schools. Here 17% of schools showed images of a teacher before an entire classroom; a third had the teacher engaging small groups of students; and a remarkable two-thirds displayed images of a teacher engaging a single student.

Does it matter how schools market themselves? It is unlikely that schools check the ICSEA of their school before deciding which images to use in their prospectus. Rather, the levels of discipline displayed speak to our unconscious assumptions about how different classes of students are best educated. That is, these images reflect our ‘common sense’ beliefs about certain classes and their need for a strict school environment if they are to succeed.

As eminent Australian sociologist, Raewyn Connell has pointed out, for working class parents, discipline is to be applied to their children if they are to succeed academically. For ruling class parents, a disciplined school is one without working class students, so it can focus on ‘disciplines’, rather than discipline.

The lower the school’s ICSEA, the more likely the school’s prospectus is to discuss discipline in the text and the less likely it is to discuss student resilience. The exact opposite is true the school’s with a higher ICSEA. Resilience is a form of self-discipline, that is, it is a manifestation of a middle class habitus. Discipline is different; it is something that must be imposed on a student who cannot otherwise be expected to display such a habitus. The images selected by schools also reflect this difference.

I think the way schools market themselves does matter. All schools seek to attract the same students, those who are keen to learn and easy to teach (that is, those with a middle class academic background) but how schools go about marketing themselves depends on more than just the ‘customer’ they seek to attract. Marketing images can do much to reinforce preconceived notions of the school.

I was surprised by what appeared to me to be the self-fulfilling prophecy these marketing materials made when selecting images to promote their schools. I had not expected the class-based assumptions of the levels of discipline needed to educate students to be nearly so obvious. But if these assumptions are so obvious in the ‘ideal’ worlds construct in school marketing, how likely is it that schools avoid these assumptions in their practice?



Trevor McCandless works as a researcher for the Chair of Education at Deakin University where he is completing his PhD.  His thesis considers how class, gender and race are represented in school marketing materials and what this says about the construction of the ‘ideal student’.​

One thought on “Significant difference in how Australian public and private schools market themselves:Why?

  1. Jayne Keogh says:

    I looked at school marketing practices as part of my doctoral project in the 1990s and it looks like little has changed since then

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