How to get a head in advertising

1st June 2001 at 01:00
When the going got tough for a Thurrock school, it hired an ad agency. Harvey McGavin reports on an upfront and personal recruitment campaign

Most schools go out of their way to trumpet their achievements and keep quiet about their shortcomings. The old cliche about any publicity being good publicity might apply in the superficial world of showbiz, but in education a good reputation is what counts.

If your school's in special measures, without a headteacher and half its teaching staff, stuck in a grim building on the industrial outskirts of London, you'd try to solve your recruitment crisis by playing to your strengths and playing down your bad points. Right? Wrong.

West Thurrock primary school tried the conventional approach when it placed a classified advertisement for staff last December, but it didn't get a single response. Without a permanent head for four years and under special measures since its last full Ofsted inspection in 1997, the school was in deep trouble. Only four of its eight teachers were permanent, and so many supply teachers had passed through the staffroom it was beginning to resemble a transit camp. A new approach was needed.

So the school hired an advertising agency (it won't say for how much), which came up with three ideas. Two were of the earnest "can you make a difference?" variety, but it was the third - a brutally honest assessment of the school's predicament - that proved a unanimous winner with the governors. "Special measures," it began. "No headteacher. Ugly buildingI in the middle of a seriously difficult periodI termly Ofsted inspectionsI" If it hadn't been so refreshingly honest you might think the consolations in the small print - small classes, "enthusiastic" pupils and "exceptionally supportive" staff - were euphemisms for undersubscribed, unruly pupils and staff who spend their break times crying on each other's shoulders.

Since the advert appeared (TES, May 4), the school has been under a kind of media siege. Radio Five Live was the first to ring, asking for an interview with Tracey Thornton, the acting head. "I didn't think anything would come of it," she says, a week and many interviews later, with a slightly hysterical laugh.

Radio Two, Radio Essex, Meridian TV, BBC1's Newsroom South East and Carlton's London Tonight all followed up the story, and reporters from the Daily Mail to the Thurrock Recorder have called. "I even managed to make the Yorkshire Post," says Ms Thornton, whose family in Leeds rang to tell her. "All I've been doing all week is talk to reporters."

Why is this unassuming little school in Essex so keen to advertise its failings? Can things really be that bad? If anything, the advert sells the school short. It could have added "handy for the shops" (the massive Lakeside shopping centre is right next door), or even "riverside location". OK, so you have to negotiate a few industrial estates to get there but the Thames is just a few hundred yards away. On a clear day, from the upstairs windows, you can even see the green fields of Kent beyond the rows of electricity pylons. And, on a windy day, you can smell the fabric conditioner factory across the road, says Andrew Gould, uncertain whether this is a selling point or not.

It was Mr Gould, a school improvement officer on secondment from Thurrock council, who courted the media's attention in the first place. But within days of sending an email to Radio Five Live, he was wondering what he had started. He drops the estate agent patter for a moment. "It's a very unattractive area," he admits.

And in that context the school building, a grey, two-storey Seventies prfab, fits in well with its surroundings. "When I first came here I thought I must be in the wrong place. I was expecting it to be appalling. But there is a really nice atmosphere among the staff." He has been at the school for two terms, outstaying his original one-term placement because, he says, "I didn't want to let the kids down".

There's no doubt the school's 215 pupils have been let down in the past. Year 5 had 17 teachers last year and, unsurprisingly, discipline was a problem. Attracting and holding on to quality staff has been at the root of many of the difficulties. Turnover runs at one or two teachers a term, and Tracey Thornton, acting head since April, has been at the school for only two-and-a-half years herself.

Andrew Gould says that "part of the trouble is getting people across the threshold and through the front door. Once they get inside they can see it's not so bad." He's right. Inside, the school has bright, open-plan classrooms and a new suite of computers - but no IT teacher. Mr Gould is filling in until a full-time replacement can be found. The pupils in his Year 3 class are under no illusions about their "ugly building", and colourful drawings of their suggested improvements adorn the walls. The photograph of the original building that stood on the site from 1886 to 1975 is a reminder of what a school should look like.

Lying in the shadow of the Dartford Road bridge, 40 miles east of London, West Thurrock is at the sharp end of the recruitment crisis. It has the same kind of challenging environment you might expect in an inner-London school. But teachers moving here qualify for only a fringe allowance, and property prices are still high - around pound;60,000 for a one-bedroomed flat and more than pound;200,000 for a family home. As Andrew Gould points out, "why would you want to live out here when you could live in the hottest city in the world?" West Thurrock is not the only school in the area to have problems finding staff. A nearby secondary resorted to sending pupils down to the shopping precinct with sandwich boards pleading "Will you come and teach me?". "There are lots of people in the same boat," says Mr Gould. "And if you are a teacher there is so much to choose from." But the shock-tactic advertising has had the desired effect - the school has had 10 applications for four posts.

Meanwhile, at least the termly visits from the Ofsted inspector hold no fear for the staff. "I think he's fed up with coming here," says Mr Gould. "He's on first-name terms with everybody. We are not blase about it, but it isn't as traumatic as it is for some schools." Are staff battle-hardened? "Some of us are battle-scarred." This isn't gallows humour, more like the optimism of a school that knows things, as they say, can only get better.

Myra Taylor, a learning support assistant and governor whose children went to West Thurrock ("and they are 23 now"), has the longest association with the school of anybody there. "I have seen a lot of changes. We have had some low times. And we have hit rock bottom, but we are on the way up now. Staff morale is very good."

As the school awaits the appointment of a new headteacher and hopes for a full complement of staff, the media attention has paid dividends in other ways. A Year 4 teacher wore a tie to work especially, but missed his "moment of glory" because he was busy singing with Year 1 when the Daily Mail photographer called.

For Andrew Gould, the highlight came when a television interviewer asked his class if they wanted a new teacher. "No, we like this one," they replied.

"Sometimes this job has its rewards," he says.

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