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Here's looking at you, and you

Bob Doe reports on entries to the first TES School Prospectus Awards and finds the winning schools are those. Should we be surprised to find all three prize-winning schools in the first TES School Pros-pectus Award competition are oversubscribed? After all, a superb school prospectus ought to be one of the key marketing ploys for school needing to boost its enrolments.

But is it a smart prospectus that pulls the parents? Or is it the underlying attitudes required to produce a good prospectus? Such as ensuring that everything the school does, it does well. Or making it a top priority to keep parents informed, involved and enthusiastic. Or is it simply that schools with a clearer vision of what they stand for are better placed to produce a convincing prospectus and to gain the confidence of parents and their children?

The TES awards are not made simply for the most expensively produced or glossiest publications. The judges looked for prospectuses which: * met the legal requirements for maintained schools; * told parents what they needed to know about the school; * gave a clear sense of what the school stood for; * were laid out in a clear, concise and attractive style; * used plain English; * demonstrated value for money.

First the bad news. Many brochures - even some that were otherwise quite good - simply failed to meet the legal requirements (see right). Pupil absence rates, school times or dates, test or exam results and religious education and collective worship were the most common omissions.

Spelling mistakes were also worryingly common - again, even in the some of the best brochures - and apostrophes were widely abused. Anyone can slip up, of course, but in such an important, formal presentation of a school's qualities and values, such poor attention to detail gives the opposite impression to that which many were clearly seeking to convey.

Too much text unrelieved by illustration or subheadings; language that is stilted or officious rather than warm and parent-friendly; and the use of unfamiliar jargon also counted against some entries. The acronym OFSTED may be engraved on every teacher's heart but even spelling it out in full does not begin to explain its relevance to parents.

There was some good and informative writing, though some of it struck the judges as flowery and pretentious. Some heads would do well to encourage a colleague or governor to offer frank feedback on their introductions. The best reports showed the influence of a single editorial hand even if many had contributed.

Those prospectuses which impressed adopted clear, logical layouts with helpful sub-headings and tables of contents. They made good use of photographs and illustrations to bring their schools alive and to break up text.

As James Middleton, our Plain English Campaign judge, remarked: "Good design is very important. It makes reading and understanding so much easier."

How much you spend on your brochure and whether to call in professional help involves judgments about costs and benefits and expectations of parents. As one of our winners points out, the care you take in describing the work of the school also has important implications for staff morale.

Some schools clearly seize the prospectus as an opportunity to involve the professional skills (or sponsorship) of their community and several struck a compromise on production costs, producing the prospectus in two parts: a glossier, colour brochure that would last for several years and which also acts as a folder for ephemera which need to be updated on plainer sheets annually.

Our scrutineers found, however, that sometimes additional sheets were referred to but not included or that loosely-bound bundles tended to fall apart. One had even bound its prospectus upside-down.

However much or little a school decides to spend, what really divides the award-winners from the rest is the content, and particularly the extent to which it offers parents cogent answers to such questions as "Why should I send my child to this school?"

The judges did not necessarily relish what was being offered but we recognised the helpfulness of the school spelling out its distinctiveness or unique selling points. If other schools fail to do this because they are unsure of what it is they stand for or have to offer, then some clarity or agreement on that point is where improvement of their prospectus needs to start.

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