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Tell them what it's really like

Schools must learn to market themselves, says John Kimber. To many in schools the very word marketing is an anathema. It epitomises everything that is worst in a capitalist society; foot-in-the door salesmen, unwanted double-glazing phone calls and pointless advertising.

What has all this to do with schools? Is it any more than promoting the predatory concept of "competition", setting school against school in an expensive promotional battle that does not benefit our children's learning?

In fact marketing is none of these things. Marketing is to do with communications. It is about establishing what are the best aspects of your schools, and telling the world about them.

Not so long ago, for the majority of pupils, the different schools that they attended were part of a fixed educational structure.

Children went from primaries to largely predetermined middle or secondary schools and sixth forms. In different places the schools had different names and the transfers took place at different ages. Generally, however, a fixed progression was in place.

This pattern is changing. At each transfer, increasing numbers of parents are questioning this "natural" progression. There are a number of reasons for this.

The Government has been pushing the notion of choice in education and many parents are much more mobile. They no longer need to select from local schools or rely on the transport provided to predetermined schools. If they are happy to transport their children themselves, they can select a school which offers special coverage in music, drama, a particular sport, chess or any subject or interest they favour.

Parents are used to more choice in everything. For the mobile, the choice of three or four supermarkets running many thousands of lines is a far cry from the single village shop or high street grocer of a generation ago.

Cinemas now show up to a dozen different films. Enhanced by satellite connections the choice of television channels is becoming bewildering. We now have choice in telephone services and competition in gas supplies and electricity is not far behind.

In every purchase in every pastime, in every corner of British life we are getting, and getting used to getting, more choice.

It is inevitable that the public view of education will be coloured with the same chalk.

The requirement for marketing arises from the existence of choice. Where there is no choice marketing is not needed.

Choosing means taking whatever information is to hand, however scant. It means measuring the alternatives, and determining the criteria that really matter.

Given that no one is omniscient about any product, service, or school, we must all make choices based upon our perceptions. These will comprise what we know, like or dislike, or indeed just what we can remember about what we require. The role of marketing is to improve perceptions.

What schools have to do is make sure that the public, parents, especially prospective parents, have perceptions about schools which are accurate. Schools must communicate effectively their good points, their strengths, their advantages. Failure to do this, relying on "our record" or the grapevine results in our "audience" having misconceptions.

Bad news travels best. So in today's information-saturated world, schools just cannot leave to chance the communication of their whole school ethos to parents and others.

Rumour, innuendo, misinformation and eventually dissatisfaction will set in.

Marketing is about using well-established techniques to reduce misconceptions and make sure that an accurate image of a school's qualities is received by its audience and remembered. And that means consistent reinforcement.

School may not relish yet another non-education activity. But some might appreciate the disciplined thinking about school planning which marketing imposes.

One thing is sure, as society becomes more sophisticated, more used to greater layers of communication, the spectrum of choice will also expand. Public expectation of choice, and the increasing amount of information to support choice, is a one-way development. Like it or not, to be effective in the future, schools must keep up.

Independent schools have always appreciated the need for self promotion; the time has now come for all schools in the state sector to think along the same lines. Those that adopt the well-tried principles of marketing will most cost-effectively take the lead in their areas.

John Kimber is chairman of governors at Belvoir High School, Leicestershire, and a marketing consultant

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