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Promotion battle of the airwaves takes off

The battle to attract pupils is driving increasing numbers of private and grant-maintained schools to promote themselves on local radio stations.

Squeezed between smash hits and rowdy jingles, the plugs can sound incongruous. "No more than you would pay for baby-minding," intoned the advertisement for Grittleton House, a small independent school, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, during its nursery recruitment.

Dick Davison, deputy director of the Independent Schools Information Service, said: "We advise that local radio is an increasingly influential medium. Half the children attending independent schools have parents who didn't go."

GM secondaries rather than primaries tend to use the airwaves. "We don't have any figures but radio advertising has become quite prevalent in urban rather than rural areas, where high levels of competition exist for pupils," said Adrian Pritchard, director of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation.

Archbishop Temple school in Preston, Lancashire, is a case in point. A mixed Church of England school catering for 650 pupils aged 11-16, it was being squeezed by two popular comprehensives. Three years ago, it changed its image.

Gillian James, the headteacher, explained: "Under the previous head, the name was changed from William Temple to Archbishop Temple. The school also went for technology college status and started advertising on the radio. I was cynical at first but the ads make it sound the place to be. We've tried to make ourselves distinctive."

Mrs James believes that broadcasting on Red Rose radio has helped make the school more buoyant although it is still 130 below capacity. "We were over-subscribed for this year's Year 7," she said. "Radio advertising has been expensive - in the first year it cost us Pounds 3,000. I think we will do it for one more year."

She admits that the campaign has caused friction with the neighbouring comprehensives, Fulwood high and Broughton county high. "We are taking a lot more catchment from them. They found our GM status difficult to swallow, " she said.

At Grittleton House, which has around 200 pupils, the results of advertising on the West Country radio station GWR were dramatic, especially in the nursery - this year there were 31 pupils compared with nine in 1994.

The school spent "several thousand pounds" on saturation coverage, yet the headteacher, Joanna Shipp, had misgivings.

"When I first heard the station, I thought: 'I can't listen - I don't want to descend to this.' I was worried about it being the right market. But parents are more middle of the road than they used to be. I think it was excellent, " she said.

After Grittleton's success, Stonar, an independent girl's school near Melksham with 480 day and boarding pupils aged four to 18, went on air, encouraged by the numbers of GWR listeners in socio-economic grades A and B. Their advert coaxes parents into making the most of their child's potential, describing Stonar as "one of Wiltshire's best kept secrets".

But the effect was less dramatic than at Grittleton. "It cost between Pounds 3-4,000 for about 12 slots and we had four enquiries," said Sue Hopkinson, the headteacher. "I don't think we shall repeat it. If we'd had 10 to 15 visits and five firm enquiries, we would have thought that a good return."

Julian Grenfell, headteacher of Mostyn House, an independent co-educational day school for 365 pupils aged four to 18 at Parkgate on the Wirral, has advertised on three local stations, emphasising extra-curricular activities and sport. "How successful has it been? I wish to God I knew - it isn't like selling a vacuum cleaner. It's a trickle feed, about building up awareness, " he said.

But many independent schools still shun local radio, among them Queen Ethelburga's, near York, which attracted publicity when advertising on Classic FM.

Ethelburga's registrar Fay Clough said that the school, which has 281 day and boarding boys and girls, spanning nursery age to 18, has no plans to use a regional pop station. "The effect was phenomenal. But television is our next area of exploration, " she said.

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