Judging a school prospectus award poses certain problems. For a start, if the brochures submitted reflect the varied aims and ethoses of different schools, they ought to be very different from each other and therefore you are forced to compare unlike with unlike. And judges have to remember that it is the presentation of that ethos - not the ethos itself - they are there to evaluate.
Then there is the fact that different schools obviously have different purposes and audiences in mind for their prospectus. For some it is clearly first and foremost a recruitment tool designed to attract more pupils and parents. Others seem to have broader promotional intentions; their brochures would serve just as well as a general introduction to the school for potential staff, governors or sponsors. Or the school may simply see in the prospectus an opportunity to celebrate staff and pupil achievements, or reinforce their aims and objectives to those already at the school. Then there are those which seem to be designed for a longer shelf-life; as much handbooks for the years ahead as introductions to newcomers.
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to expect that, whatever else it does, a prospectus should meet the needs of prospective parents for information to help them choose between schools, presented in a clear, inviting and readable manner. And because we did not want simply to award prizes for the glossiest and most expensive productions, the criteria for The TES School Prospective Awards agreed with our partners, Rank Xerox, also required the judges to look for evidence of cost-effectiveness.
So in making these awards we looked for school brochures which: * met the legal requirements * told parents what they needed to know * gave a clear sense of what the school stood for * showed cost-effective planning and production * were laid out in a clear, concise and attractive style * used plain English and no jargon.
To reinforce the parental perspective and plain-speaking requirement, we invited judges from the Advisory Centre for Education and the Plain English Campaign to help us select the winners and comment on the entries (see page 23).
It is clear that many schools are investing heavily both in time and money to improve their prospectuses. We know from research that for most schools, the brochure represents their main effort and expenditure on marketing.
There are signs that the quality of entries is improving, though many schools still do not meet the full legal requirements. And though greater care seems to be going into design and presentation, many schools have yet to develop the kind of informal, accessible writing style most likely to communicate their message to parents.
Once again, the productions that impress the most are those that make clear the message the school wants to communicate. The first stage in producing a good prospectus is to be sure what it is that your school offers; what, in an ideal world, would you have your parents reply when asked why they chose you?
SPECIAL SCHOOL WINNER
Parents' reading abilities cannot always be taken for granted. This is especially true of schools like Westfield, a school for 150 children with moderate learning in Weymouth. As with many special schools, the catchment area for children with moderate learning difficulties is much larger than those of other schools. Prospective parents do not necessarily live locally and do not get to know the school by other means.
To help overcome these problems, Westfield's head, Phil Silvester, contacted the local Weymouth College media studies department. Over four months or so of visits to the school, the FE college's media studies students have produced a professional-quality video prospectus.
"We think it puts over the flavour of what we offer, the core of what we believe in passionately to the mums and dads who may be considering us," says Phil Silvester.
"The video was completely unscripted. But all the staff were interviewed and I was delighted that they all stressed our core values: our focus on each pupil as an individual, our aim to build self-esteem and self-confidence, and our happy family atmosphere."
Copies were sent to special needs co-ordinators in all Westfield feeder schools, educational psychologists and other professional agencies involved with the school and parents of potential pupils. "Anybody who had anything to do with the school had the opportunity to show prospective parents what we are good at; to give a flavour of the school." But with two or three applicants for every place, this determination to communicate what Westfield is about is clearly not just about recruitment.
The school's printed prospectus is a smart 40-page glossy A4 booklet liberally illustrated with black and white photographs chosen from 500 taken free of charge by local photographer Keith Hooper. It cost pound;1,600 to print 1,000 copies - which might seem a high cost for a 150-pupil school. But Phil Silvester maintains there is no reason the school should not produce something of good quality that can compare with anyone else's. "Our children should not be offered second best."
A staff working party led by the head spent 15 months getting the text right. It starts with the school's aims, again stressing those core values, and with a poem written by a pupil's grandmother, recognising the pain and disappointment many parents feel when their child is moved to a special school.
Though Bitterne Park School in Southampton, spent pound;4,000 on its brochure, it does not see such expenditure as a response to local competition for pupils, more an aspect of the school's drive for continous improvement. "We aim to attract the children from our designated catchment area," head Dianne Nightingale explains. "But in everything we set out to improve on our previous best, to produce the highest quality in all we do and to live up to our vision statement."
That statement is included on page 3 of the prospectus: "Bitterne Park School will provide excellent secondary education which challenges and extends pupils of all abilities, and prepares them to contribute positively to the communities in which they live. Our commitment to quality and achievement will make us the natural first choice of parents, pupils and staff living in the east Southampton area."
In the words of the school's OFSTED report, reproduced in Dianne Nightingale's introduction to the prospectus, "This is a good and improving school where high standards are set for pupils and staff alike. Second best is not good enough here."
The main 20-page A4 glossy, full-colour booklet deals with the school aims, curriculum, organisation and activities in and out of the classroom illustrated throughout with photographs taken by a member of the school's science staff. It has a pocket inside the back cover containing plainer printed sheets on the admissions policy; the 1996 OFSTED report; examination and test results; attendance; advice on bullying, special needs, homework and charging; behaviour management; staff and governors and the complaints procedure.
In theory, the full-colour booklet could be used for more than one year and the sheets updated. In practice, the school has wanted to improve on the previous year's effort.
Deputy head Chris Willsher produces the prospectus without any professional design help other than that provided by the commercial printers.
If you want to know how good a restaurant is you ask someone who has eaten there, not the chef. Or so Year 6 pupils at Springmead JMI in Welwyn Garden City argue. As a result they got the job of writing, illustrating and producing their school's prospectus - or the first 20 pages of it.
"Our school is fantastic and out of the ordinary because all the teachers treat us fairly and try to make learning fun", and, "If you come to our school, don't be scared because everyone will look after you and treat you like a true friend", may well have rather more impact than the official mission statement "in the part teachers have written in the back for your parents to read".
Parents may also welcome the pupils' straightforward descriptions of what actually goes on in the school. In maths, infants "play number games and learn their number bonds to help them with their speedy maths. When you get older you have to learn your tables and we get a test every week."
Reception class children "learn about science by playing with the equipment. As we get older we do experiments and and begin to write about experiments and to make conclusions."
Gillian Cochrane, Springmead's head, says they decided pupils were best placed to judge what was interesting and useful to know about the school. "We wanted an honest view of how they see the school."
The 54-page, A4 plastic-bound booklet was photocopied in school and collated by the pupils - the pupil section is illustrated with their own line drawings but the official section is plain text; laid out in an unfussy style in short, sub-titled sections. Like all the winning entries, its contents are clearly organised and indexed. The 100 copies produced cost about pound;60.
Springmead's mission statement - "put together by everyone in the school, adults and children," says Mrs Cochrane - ends with the expectation that pupils will "see themselves as valued and valuable members of society, prepared to face the future with enthusiasm, determination and good humour, and to look back at their time at Springmead with a sense of achievement and pride."
The pupils' prospectus demonstrates how far they and their views are valued. And the fact that it helped win their school this award must surely add to that sense of achievement and pride the school is aiming for.
Bob Doe The TES. James Middleton The Plain English Campaign. Margaret McGowan The Advisory Centre for Education. John Wheeler Perception Design. John Farrel amp; Janine Yates Rank Xerox.
For details of next year's award contact Alex Hayter, Scope Ketchum Communications, Tower House 8-14 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7HA Tel: 0171 379 3234