Effective marketing can be as important as high-quality teaching in building customer confidence in recruitment. So says a new government-sponsored guide to marketing for colleges of further education. All staff, it says, should be involved in the marketing process; it should be a mainstream and not a peripheral activity.
This will send shudders through the nation's staffrooms. The most frequent comments I get when I lecture to schools on PR and marketing are: "These are very good ideas, Tim, but we just don't have the time." Or: "How can we possibly spend money on marketing, if we don't have enough for decent textbooks?" Or more angrily: "We were trained as teachers. We know nothing about marketing. That is why we call people like you in."
Marketing of schools cannot be left to people like us. We can carry out market research, advise on basic strategy, draft prospectuses, and design eye-catching advertisements. But with whom would a prospective parent, the head of a feeder school or playgroup, or a visiting journalist rather deal - a PR person representing the school or the headteacher and members of his or her staff?
I have just completed updating a manual on public relations and marketing for schools to be published this autumn. The original one (with Brian Knight, former head of Holyrood School, Chard) was published in 1990 when the ground rules for the marketing of state schools were still being established.
Since then, whether we like it or not, a market has developed in education and the advent of exam league tables and Office for Standards in Education inspections has forced schools to be much more image-conscious.
But is marketing a question of resources and money? If so, what chance have those schools in down-town areas if high-quality and dedicated teaching is just not enough to market the school?
The chapter in my manual which I most enjoyed writing, traces the reasons for the success of schools in difficult areas whose headteachers were rewarded for their services to education in the 1998 New Year's Honours list. Their good fortunes were grounded on two basic elements: involve your staff (and through them the pupils, parents and school community) and celebrate success at all times and wherever possible.
As soon as you enter the foyer of Northicote school, Wolverhampton, - the first secondary to be named and shamed by OFSTED - you see notice boards proclaiming the winners of all sorts of types of success, not just academic. Pupils have designed trophies which are proudly displayed in a showcase. Sir Geoff Hampton, honoured recently for turning round the school, says: "Success at school is all about internal communications. You need to praise success wherever possible."
Not long after he started as headteacher, he noticed that the doors hanging loose from the lockers were being used as climbing frames. "One day I brought in a screwdriver, and started to take them down. Within minutes staff and pupils had emerged to help me. It was symbolic. I knew I had arrived."
Staff who wish to help in marketing the now oversubscribed school drop in once a week to a lunch-time session, and many are involved in bringing public attention to the good things that are happening.
Another school which has turned itself around is Priory primary on the western outskirts of Slough. In 1986 it had just 265 pupils and was at the bottom of the parental pecking order. It is now at the top with more than 700 pupils.
Its head, Carole Evans told me: "Being a good head of a school is all about having a vision for the school and communicating that vision to the staff, the parents and the community. I have clearly-stated objectives, based on the premise that the children come first and that their achievements are to be valued and celebrated."
Staff meet every Monday in a staffroom which looks more like a drawing room than a workplace. Every month there is a meeting of staff representatives which includes non-teaching staff.
Carole said: "A few years ago I wrote a paper on marketing the school for a seminar. I said I had never been interested in marketing. I am just interested in the quality of education we provide for the children. If you produce a good school with good standards and a good quality of teaching and learning, that school will market itself. However listening in the audience was an expert on marketing who commented that everything I had done could have come straight out of a marketing text book."
The lesson is that a school needs to be seen to be successful, as well as being successful, and in that process every member of staff has a role to play as a celebrant whether it is through word of mouth or through use of the media.
Tim Devlin is a public relations consultant who specialises in education. He will be taking part in a TESBBC Schools and the Media conference in November. Details on p28 of Friday