Anyone who regularly tries to find the way in to a school appreciates the value of a clear sign saying "Reception this way, please". Confronted by what appears to be a building with all windows and no doors, one can feel a little downhearted after tramping round the outside and discovering that the only way in seems to be a fire door next to the boys' toilets.
Realising this, schools are beginning to recognise the advantage of adopting a well-planned sign system that, as well as helping people find their way around, also promotes a friendly and positive image.
Signs and Signwriting, a specialist, family-run business based in Birmingham, has demonstrated how much difference a good sign system can make through its work in 500 schools across the country.
"We are keen to help schools promote the right image, so we are happy to devise ideas and signage packages," says Steve Martin. "But we also realise schools have to work within realistic budgets and will need us to work quickly."
Nursery, primary and secondary schools and colleges have commissioned Signs and Signwriting, for anything from small projects costing about Pounds 500, up to a full package throughout the school, costing around Pounds 8,000.
At Aston Tower Community Primary School in Birmingham, headteacher Nick Jones wanted simply to name the school clearly and welcome visitors in several languages, including Bengali, Urdu and Punjabi.
"We were very pleased with the effect of the signs," says Nick Jones. "Our school is set back from the road and it was confusing for visitors, especially as many were coming to the community room. Since then we have had several more signs in the school, including eight large panels in the playground which feature characters from the Oxford Reading Tree scheme we use (pictured left).
"We wanted to brighten up the playground and encourage better discipline while lining up, so the panels help by being a feature on which the children can focus, lining up in front of the go-kart picture, for example, that they see in their reading book."
Signs and Signwriting has recently won approval from Oxford University Press to use the Reading Tree characters, which it can reproduce as free-standing boards with an optional dry-wipe speech bubble for notices.
Aston Tower is in a City Challenge Area, through which it can receive extra funding for projects such as the work-related curriculum in which schools and local business work together.
Tapping into this resource, Nick Jones arranged for Steve Martin to visit and talk to the pupils about the signs. A colouring competition was organised and some of the children's work used in the signs. "There was an instant reaction from the children when the boards went up," says Nick Jones. "They are really pleased with them."
Other signs for schools can include site maps, murals to brighten corridors or "rules to make a playground happy" featuring drawings by the children. School colours and emblems can be reproduced in different ways throughout the school, while the new free-standing Oxford Reading Tree cut-out characters can be moved around for special events.
Church-aided schools, many of which are now replacing their existing local education authority signs with new diocese or archdiocese boards, can apply to the Department for Education and Employment for a grant of 85 per cent towards the cost of new nameboards.
A site visit and costing are carried out free of charge for interested schools. It took Signs and Signwriting about six weeks to design and install Aston Tower's signs, and cost in the region of Pounds 1,200.
"Steve Martin was very responsive to our needs, understanding what the school wanted from the signs. We did wonder if parents would comment that expensive signs were an extravagance we could not afford," says Nick Jones, "but the comments we have received are to the effect that it brightens and raises the profile of the school."
* Signs and Signwriting,Unit 2, 57 Wharf Road, Tyseley,Birmingham B11 2DX. Tel: 0121 707 6747. Stand H5