How much should a school spend on its prospectus? And is it a job it should undertake itself or one for professional help? One survey last year by Metafour, a Midlands company specialising in educational marketing, suggested secondary schools spend Pounds 2,500 on average, with some spending much more or less.
A survey of 173 grant-maintained schools carried out by Kent-based educational public relations firm TDE this autumn found more than a third spent between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 10,000 this year. That still left a majority (63 per cent) spending less than Pounds 5,000, though one spent more than Pounds 15,000.
It may be significant that more than three-quarters of the grant-maintained schools questioned had increased their pupil numbers. Competing for pupils is not the only reason schools might decide to invest more time and effort in their prospectus, however. They may simply wish to provide a more accurate picture of what the school offers to attract parents who support that ethos or to ensure a balanced intake.
Prizes in The TES School Prospectus Awards, now offered for the second time (see page 21 for details), are not given for the glossiest or most expensive productions. The judges, first and foremost, are looking for readable content and good design which spells out clearly what parents want to know.
The secondary winner of the first TES Award found, however, that a professionally produced glossy brochure opened doors and more than paid for itself in the sponsorship it helped the school attract. The care taken to describe the work of the school boosted staff morale.
Michael Preston, principal of Chalfonts Community College, said of their prize-winning prospectus: "We set out to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the college and make parents feel what we are about. We wanted to say what we believe about education and put our values on the line."
Entries to the award are presumably from schools pleased with their prospectuses. The best clearly helped parents to answer the question, "Why should I send my child to this school?" A number of entries failed to meet the legal requirements to publish school times and dates, pupil absence rates, test or exam results and arrangements for religious education or worship. And many needed to improve their presentation.
This is not just a matter of money. Many prospectuses consist of text unrelieved by sub-headings or illustrations. But even when professional design and layout is used, much of the language can remain officious and jargon-ridden rather than parent friendly.
The entries which impressed adopted clear and logical layouts, helpful sections and sub-headings and tables of contents. The language was warm and friendly without being pretentious. They made good use of photographs to bring the school alive.
A recent survey by the Consumers' Association confirms the impressions of TES award judges. It found only one school in 80 produced prospectuses and governors' annual reports that met the legal requirements; a picture that showed little improvement over a similar survey three years ago.
The association was also critical of the imbalance of information provided in this sample of prospectuses. Some carried four pages on sex education and half a page on pastoral care. Another had three pages listing the staff and six lines on sex education. The association concluded that parents simply were not being given the information they had a right to.
Some prospectuses clearly gave a poor impression of their school rather than enhancing it. "The best managed to sound welcoming. But the worst implied that parents were an unavoidable inconvenience rather than encouraging them to become more involved with their child's education," said the Consumers' Association.
Entries to The TES award show the wide variety of prospectuses now being produced, from a few duplicated sheets stapled together to the increasing numbers of full-colour glossy brochures. Several had the benefit of professional design and photography, though this was sometimes the result of help from qualified parents or support from others in the community.
Graham Darbyshire, a partner in Metafour, wrote recently in The TES that a well-designed, colour brochure with original photography would cost in the region of Pounds 5,000. With a shelf-life of three years that would give a cost of Pounds 1,700 a year.
But he argued strongly for the production of the school prospectus to be seen as a part of a more coherent marketing policy that started with market research and analysis of what competitor schools were offering.
To produce an attractive and longer-lasting brochure many schools are splitting up their prospectus into two parts. A visually attractive brochure or folder with plainer inserts containing statistical requirements or information which changes from year to year.
Graham Darbyshire argued that the brochure should also be professionally edited, though the additional cost of this might be offset by the more competitive prices designers are able to get from printers.
Jeff Warwick, who runs Fine Art, a design studio in Preston responsible for several award-winning prospectuses, also claims to be able to economise on production costs. He warns that some companies' designs rely upon templates of two or three standard designs and interchangeable text and photographs.
"Like our commercial clients, each school is individual. The skill is to convey its distinct character."
Targeted marketing had become increasingly important to schools. Many of Jeff Warwick's clients are over-subscribed and anxious to remain so. "When links are established between schools and local businesses they wish to project themselves as professionally as possible."
But as some entries to The TES award have shown. Schools need to start out by deciding just what is special about what they are offering parents and pupils if they are to successfully convey their ethos and philosophy. Simply throwing money or designer time at the problem will not in itself produce a good prospectus.
TDE can be contacted on 01580 893176, Metafour on 0121 449 8214 and Fine Art on 01772 434461.
LEGAL REQUIREMENTS: The governing body is responsible for publishing a school prospectus each year which must include * School name and address * Names of head and chairman of governors * Type of school * Times of school sessions * The school's principles and values * The admissions policy * Arrangements for visiting * Policy for dealing with complaints * Local authority arrangements for complaints about the curriculum (not required in grant-maintained schools) * Affiliations with any religion * The contents, organisation and teaching of the curriculum for different years or key stages * A summary of the policy on special needs * Any special arrangements for particular categories of pupils * The content and organisation of sex education * RE and collective worship provided * National curriculum assessment results * The governing body's charging policy * Dates of terms and half-terms for the next year * Authorised and unauthorised pupil absences * How parents may gain access to schemes of work, syllabuses, the governors' annual report, inspection reports on the school, DFEE circulars and information about school performance in the area.
In addition, secondary schools must provide: * Description of levels of application in previous years * Details of careers education and work experience * Public examination results * Destinations of school-leavers In future prospectuses will also need to include: * National results for key stage test results * Aims and provisions for sport Government Circular 1196 on the requirements for primary school prospectuses and 1296 for secondary can be obtained from the DFEE Publications Centre, POBox 6927, London E3 3NZ Tel: 0171 510 0150 Fax: 017