But we've turned it around. Numbers have steadily risen for the last two years, and are over 200 again. Seventy per cent of pupils come from outside our catchment area, which shows we're promoting the school widely.
This is a competitive area. Wokingham LEA is one of the highest performing in the country and many schools do exceptionally well in league tables. But Beechwood is at the north-western edge of the authority, on the outskirts of Reading. It's not the most affluent area, and the usual thinking is that schools in other areas are more desirable. That view is so entrenched that if I want to challenge it I need a radical approach.
This approach has been shaped by the fact that I spent four years working in retail. I started out as a teacher, but then, in my thirties, became a senior manager for Debenhams. The company spent pound;35,000 training me; sending me around the world to learn about personnel management, marketing strategy and the importance of good PR. When I returned to education, I applied what I'd learned. You must give the customer what they want. In education terms, that means academic results, discipline, and a wide range of extracurricular opportunities. But it's not just about having the goods; you need to make customers aware that you have the goods.
When I worked at Debenhams, I took ideas from John Lewis and Marks and Spencer. If someone else is doing something better than you, then you have to change. "Steal thy neighbour's finest idea" is the first commandment of retail. You have to know what other schools are doing. When I started here, I visited all the primaries in our cluster to see what they had that we hadn't.
Some local heads view me as a maverick rather than an opportunist. I once did a leaflet drop across the area letting everyone know about our school.
A simple thing, yet it caused quite a stir. Some people called it propaganda; I call it informing the public. It seems competition is still a dirty word in education, though I'm not sure why. To me, being in competition means doing your best and trying to raise your own standards against those of others. These are good things.
Staff must project confidence in the school, and that goes for the pupils too. From the start of key stage 2, it's drummed into them that they are responsible for promoting the school. At breaktimes, we have children answering the telephone in reception. It's a selling point. It attracts positive comments about the politeness of our pupils and shows we promote responsibility. The front desk is a school's public face, yet I ring some schools and no one answers the phone.
We have set up a promotions team. It brings together people with a range of different skills and contacts. There's a police inspector, an advertising guru, and a building surveyor, among others. It's quite separate from our governing body, and exists simply to drive forward the profile of the school within the community.
We have a website that gives information, but also humanises the school, with portraits of the teachers. The school prospectus has been revamped and now comes in two parts. The first is short and glossy, outlining the aims of the school, with plenty of photographs. A separate brochure covers the statutory stuff, such as admissions policies. We play to our strengths. We have a swimming pool here, so we make a real feature of it in our publicity.
We have open afternoons, so people can see the children working. At any time of year, if a parent is interested in the school, I will personally give them a 45-minute tour. At the end, I ask them if they're going to be shopping around. If they are, then I say to them: "If you end up choosing another school that's fine, but would you mind just ringing me and saying why you didn't choose us." That information is invaluable. If they do that, then it's been time well spent, even if they don't send their child here.
Gordon Davies is headteacher at Beechwood primary school, Woodley, Reading.
He was talking to Steven Hastings
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