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In search of Jack and Emily

Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

Five years ago I took over a low-achieving primary school on a large estate (a mixture of owner-occupied and local authority housing). The building, set in extensive grounds, is attractive and well-designed. In that time we have turned the school around. Standards are greatly improved, morale is high and the school is enjoying success.

My problem is this: middle-class parents are still using alternatives.

Their children pass my door wearing the blazers and caps of local private schools, and our admission forms inevitably show us as third choice behind neighbouring primaries. There is still a perception that the school is not "right" for middle-class children. What can I do about this?

There is no doubt that once a public perception is formed about whether or not a school is the best place to send Emily or Jack, it is difficult to shift it.

We work in a context of parental choice, and the messages coming from the Government suggest that is set to increase: parents (some might take the view that means middle-class parents) are being given more power, whether they want it or not. It's interesting to hear the vocabulary used to describe schools designed to replace "bog-standard" comprehensives:

"academy" does make a clear statement of what to expect.

If you want to change a perception you need to know what it is. You could do that by conducting a market research project; invite small groups of people who send their children elsewhere to come in and tell you what made them choose the alternative. Listen carefully and don't be tempted to argue your case.

Look for indicators that tell you about perceptions. You can divide these into things that attract people to schools and those that would make them avoid it.

Small classes may well come at the top of the list of positive factors. The focus given to the expressive arts and sport is another "pull". Academic standards and provision for able or gifted are often cited. It could be something as simple as being able to drop the child off early and pick it up late. People may voice their assumption that you get what you pay for: if you have to pay for education, then it must be better.

There may also be unspoken messages about symbols of social status and wealth. Why else would people dress four-year-olds in unforgiving blazers and oversized caps?

You might also consider sending a "mole" to get an inside view of your neighbouring schools. What statements are being conveyed, both directly and indirectly, to prospective parents? What impressions are formed? What is seen, heard and felt to persuade parents that their small child will be happier there than elsewhere?

Negative indicators are harder to unearth. People are unlikely to tell you that they don't like you. And yet, the style, presence and image of the headteacher can be a powerful persuader - in both directions. Confidence, clarity and charm may be lacking when a head is worried about the financial strain of low numbers.

To find these indicators you need an objective observer to take a hard look at what your own school represents. The picture is not always what you intend.

You know that what happens inside is very good. What do prospective parents see, hear and feel on approach? You say the building is attractive and well-designed. Does it convey a clear statement of your values and beliefs; is every area designed and maintained to reflect them? Is it scrupulously clean, cared for and loved, or are there signs of neglect - peeling paint, litter, fading signboards, cluttered and out-of-date notices? Are there clear indicators of the success the school has had in recent years in sports, arts, or in the community?

What do the children look and sound like, coming in and leaving? Are they well behaved, courteous ambassadors? Or does their demeanour and dress convey a message that is less than complimentary about your standards and expectations?

And what about parents? We know that the word at the gate is a much more powerful advert for a school than the glossiest brochure. What kind of atmosphere do parents and carers create at drop-off and pick-up times.

Armed with this bank of information, you and your governors will need to suspend your beliefs about what you think you provide and accept that perception is reality. Identify those things you can control, and therefore change, and those things you can't. Some may simply be cosmetic. Others need a well-conceived strategic campaign involving the whole school community. Good luck!

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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