David Clarke runs a leading Midlands Public Relations consultancy and is familiar with the issues involved in parental choice as he is in the process of choosing a school for his daughter. In his opinion schools should abandon artificial open evenings and concentrate on creating real events for parents to come to while the school is open. "The only way to get a flavour and a feel for a school is to go during the day."
If schools are serious about marketing themselves, he argues, they need to discover how they are viewed. "Schools need to market the personality and the commitment of the people involved; the majority of parents will make a judgment on the basis of the people who are doing the teaching."
Wood Green High school is a large comprehensive in Sandwell in the West Midlands. Barely 300 yards away the busiest motorway in Europe thunders past. It's raining heavily as open evening looms, and deputy head Phil Holmes hopes the weather will not discourage too many parents from not turning up. Wood Green is a split-site school with three distinct clusters of buildings, although the event is taking place in just two of the buildings. There are static displays and a couple of classrooms are open with children working, but the centrepiece of the evening will be the head's speech in the hall. Two hundred and fifty chairs have been laid out and, as 7.30pm approaches, and the hall fills up,it is obvious that that represents a conservative estimate of the numbers who will attend.
Headteacher Charles King is passionate about his school, and his speech takes the parents through the school's good GCSE results - grade by grade. He hopes that parents will get from the evening "a feel for what we are about". The school invests heavily in its links with partner primaries, with staff and pupil exchanges, sports tournaments and music performances. There is a school brochure which costs #163;2,000 to produce and the school is considering having a video made. And the aim of all this is to fill those seats in Year 7.
Sandwell lies just north of Birmingham and, if parents are prepared to travel, there is a wide choice of schools in the immediate area, including two grammar schools. Most parents I spoke to had already decided which school their child was going to attend the following year and had come to the open evening to confirm a decision rather than make one. Parents were looking for a variety of things. One mother, whose son had special needs, was concerned about his special help after transfer. Other parents were concerned about discipline and were pleased that Wood Green seemed to have a "good" reputation in this respect. Mr and Mrs Patel were keen that their son should be challenged by high standards of work; they were the only parents I spoke to who were going to be looking at several schools before making a decision.
At another open evening at The Sutherland school in Telford, Shropshire, most of the parents questioned had come to find out more about the school they had already chosen. The Sutherland had combined the open evening with a Year 7 pastoral evening. Head Malcolm Boulter had forgone the opportunity to speak to the parents en masse and instead was greeting parents as they arrived in the school foyer. The Sutherland is the result of an amalgamation of two schools and its first year was characterised by problems which resulted in the early retirement of the first head. Malcolm Boulter, the head of a successful school in nearby Shrewsbury, was parachuted in by the local education authority to try and make a success of the new school. He was faced with a demoralised staff, falling rolls and a pupil body with serious social and academic problems. In Years 7 and 8, over half of the pupils had special educational needs. Nearly 40 per cent of Sutherland pupils are eligible for free school meals.
The Office for Standards in Education has recognised how Malcolm Boulter managed to turn the school around remarkably quickly. Its report said: "Staff at The Sutherland have worked hard to create an ethos where good behaviour is the expected norm and where pupils have a positive approach to their work."
Attendance has improved as has staff morale, but pupil numbers remain low.Efforts to market the school are, therefore, vital to its future. In north Telford, The Suth-erland faces competition from at least three local comprehensives with the additional pressure of selective schools in Newport which is only eight miles away.
Visitors to The Sutherland' s open evening find a spotlessly clean and lively school with pupils and teachers in almost every room. In home economics students are making cakes, and in humanities a historian is explaining medieval heraldry with the aid of some wicked-looking weap-onry.Every computer in the school is switched on and manned, and those parents keen enough to explore would have found basketball practice going on in the gym. Parents were concerned about class size, about discipline and about access to computers and other equipment. Results were said to be important by almost every parent, but few knew where The Sutherland stood in the local league tables.
Margaret Morrisey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations argues that parents aren't going to be persuaded by what they see at open days. "We're not fooled by fancy trimmings," she says. She also argues that the NCPTA has picked up comments from parents who are unhappy about the amount of money that schools spend on advertising, brochures and other promotional materials. "It's extremely sad that schools are being put under this sort of pressure."
In Telford the schools have kept the cost of such advertising down by collectively taking out a full page in the local paper. Charles King at Wood Green resents the expenditure on promotional materials but feels he has little choice. Despite the high profile given to league tables in the press, most parents The TES spoke to were only vaguely aware of where their local school stood. One parent frankly admitted that he didn't understand the published exam information.
Both Malcolm Boulter and Charles King feel that the real influences on parents are the pupils and the way the local community perceives the school. However, changes in the school's performance may not be reflected in it's local reputation for several years, and in that time its income can suffer. Open days are, therefore, important, not because they influence immediate decision-making, but because a "good" open day is one of the many factors which build a school's reputation in the community. "As a tool for marketing, open days have probably outlived their usefulness," says Charles King. "But as a means of contact, a way to allow parents to come into the school for advice and support, I feel they are still worthwhile."