Every parent has an opinion of the schools in their area. But what is it based on? Greater emphasis on parental choice has meant increased competition, with image-conscious schools spending thousands of pounds each year on promotional materials. But good marketing is about more than a shiny prospectus and a hi-tech website. It's about encouraging everyone, from the head of the governors to the youngest pupil, to feel good about their school and to spread the word.
The prospectus is dead!
Happy children in smart uniforms, taught by fresh-faced staff with cheesy grins; the prospectus is the classic school marketing tool. It's also a legal requirement for all maintained schools. But according to Isabella Donnelly, of school marketing consultancy Grebot Donnelly Associates, many schools attach too much importance to the need for an expensive brochure.
"It can be very useful, but it's not the be-all and end-all," she says.
"I've seen schools waste money on a huge print run of a bulky prospectus.
Then the head leaves and the whole stock is useless."
One way of cutting costs and keeping your prospectus bang up to date is to have a loose-leaf format that allows you to add or remove individual pages, without the need for an entire reprint. "We advise schools not to go overboard, because few parents make a decision based solely on a prospectus," says Ms Donnelly. "They're far more likely to be swayed by local reputation or a visit to the school."
A shoddy prospectus may do more harm than good. One marketing consultant tells of a school that claimed to promote academic excellence as one of its core values, yet had a brochure riddled with typographical errors.
Long live the prospectus!
A printed brochure gives only a fleeting glimpse of school life, so some schools are opting for more hi-tech promotional material. "A prospectus on CD-Rom or DVD can bring your school to life," says Tom Freeland of TMAX media, which produces both. "If you have inspirational teachers on your staff then why not show them in action?"
A prospectus on DVD will certainly help project a modern image for your school, but could it also save money? Glossy brochures cost up to pound;5 each to reproduce, whereas a shiny disc costs less than pound;1 and is easier to send in the post.
But there are higher initial costs in producing a DVD. A 20-minute round-up of school events, with voiceover and soundtrack, will require several days of filming and editing, for which you can expect to pay between pound;5,000 and pound;10,000. "Shop around," advises Mr Freeland. "But at the same time be wary of 19-year-olds with a digital camcorder."
When deciding what form your prospectus should take, it's important to consider your catchment area. If you think parents are unlikely to have facilities to play a CD-Rom, then it wouldn't be sensible to choose that format. Even if you decide that virtual tours are the way forward, some material, such as basic facts, figures and contact details, may still need to be in printed form.
A competitive market?
The idea of self-promotion is still relatively new in the maintained sector, but independent schools are used to fighting for customers.
Marketing consultants who specialise in schools report that independents are almost always the biggest spenders, with annual marketing budgets of up to pound;15,000. "Boarding schools, in particular, are competing nationally, and even internationally," says Tom Freeland. "The big names are desperate to show that they have the flashiest swimming pool or the most luxurious dormitories."
But maintained schools are becoming more aware of the need for self-promotion, both at primary and secondary level. And it's not just about numbers. Even schools that are full or over subscribed can benefit from making sure they are attracting the type of students best suited to the school. And while the idea of direct competition with neighbouring schools offends many headteachers, it can still be useful to define how your school is different from others in the area.
"It's not about a cut-throat approach, or making out that you're in some way superior," says Michael Bennie, director of Keywords, a marketing consultancy for schools. "It's about letting people know what kind of ethos you have and where your strengths lie. Then parents can make an informed choice based on reality, rather than on local hearsay."
So what sort of school are you?
Some schools worry that marketing is all spin and no substance, but experts point out that developing a marketing strategy can improve your school by forcing you to become self-aware and examine your core values.
Is your school focused on pastoral care or academic achievement? Is it traditional or innovative? Christian or multi-faith? Sporting or artistic?
"Remember, there is no such thing as a bog-standard comprehensive," says Michael Bennie. "If you're perceived that way it's because you're not communicating what makes your school special."
Once you've decided on your strengths, you should communicate them at every opportunity. They should be reflected in your logo, your uniform, the sign at the school gates. Even the typeface that you choose for school letters sends out a subliminal message. Times New Roman? Serious, academic, traditional. Ariel? Friendly, accessible, community-based. Of course, it's quite possible for a school to be traditional yet innovative, both academic and pastoral. But making a clear statement is sometimes more useful than muddying the waters.
Make yourself attractive There is one area in which even maintained schools are competing on a national basis, and that is staff recruitment.
Trying to bag a quality teacher in a shortage subject isn't easy, but a bit of self-promotion may make the difference. Your marketing of the school to prospective applicants starts with the advertisement, and continues through the job description details, to the impression the school makes at interview.
One job-seeker recalls ringing a school to ask for a prospectus only to be told that they were reserved for parents only. They didn't apply. Often, the first move of someone who doesn't know a school will be to visit its website, which is a good reason for making sure your site is up to scratch.
Don't underestimate the power of the internet search engine. If someone "Googles" your school, do they find your website at the top or are they faced with a damning Ofsted summary and a local news story about a drugs incident?
Finally, consider your procedures for responding to telephone calls. Big secondaries increasingly use automated answering machines, of the "Please press 1" variety. This may be fine for those familiar with the system, who know which extension they require, but a friendly voice answering the phone makes a better impression on first-time callers from outside the school.
And if you are going to put callers on hold, why subject them to the usual easy listening? At Whalley Range high school in Manchester, callers held in the queue are treated to a recorded rundown of the school's achievements and a few snippets from its latest Ofsted report.
Targeting insiders and outsiders It's a fundamental rule of marketing that as well as attracting new customers, you must keep your existing ones happy. Isabella Donnelly says schools need to promote themselves to two target audiences, insiders and outsiders, using different strategies for each group.
On the inside are those who already have a stake in the school, including students, parents, staff, governors and your own LEA. Effective marketing to this group involves regular newsletters and an up-to-date website. It should help keep morale high, foster a stronger sense of school identity, and make it easier to retain staff and students.
On the outside are those who currently have no connection with the school.
This group includes not only potential pupils and their parents, but also local businesses and the community as a whole. This is where a prospectus and open day are useful. Positive coverage in the local press is also important (see The Issue, October 25 2002). But the key to success, say marketing experts, lies in ensuring that the way you promote the school to both insiders and outsiders is consistent. If the image the school is trying to put forward doesn't match the experience of parents and students, then it will be difficult to market the school effectively.
Open days and visits If your publicity material persuades people to visit the school in person then it has done its job. "Once I get a parent through the door, I know there's a good chance they'll sign on the dotted line," says one independent school deputy head.
An open day has the advantage of enabling you to put on a show. It can be an opportunity to engage the children in fun activities. And it means you can spruce up the school and make sure it looks its best.
But many parents prefer to visit on an ordinary working day in order to get a more realistic picture. At secondary level, having guided tours given by students rather than staff can be very effective, and parents often ask a pupil questions that they wouldn't dare ask the head. Most schools report that positive remarks from visitors are far more likely to be about the pupils they have met than about facilities or wall displays.
Site under construction?
According to the latest DfES figures, more than 80 per cent of secondary schools and more than 50 per cent of primaries have their own website. In theory, the internet offers a golden chance to showcase your school. A good site should be of use to students, teachers, governors and parents, as well as those who know nothing about the school and want to find out more.
However, according to Tom Freeland, most websites fail to do justice to their schools. "Headteachers know they should have a site, but they aren't always prepared to pay for a professional designer. Nine times out of 10 that's a mistake," he says. "Too many school websites are put together by overwhelmed, underpaid ICT teachers, under orders from senior management."
The cost of a professional designer will vary, but you'll probably need a budget of several thousand pounds. And if you can't afford that?
"First impressions count," says Mr Freeland. "Your home page is far and away the most important part of your website. If nothing else, just spend a few hundred pounds making sure it looks good."
Bob Leek, former head of ICT at an independent school and now running web design company Wizard Web, agrees that many school sites leave something to be desired. "They're often just online brochures, produced several years ago using free software, and starting to look tired."
Mr Leek's Wizard Web sites have the capacity for interactive features, such as subject-based chatrooms, multiple choice revision tests, and the chance to sign up for emailed updates on school activities.
Whatever type of website you have, it's important that it is clear, and quick and easy to use. It needs to be regularly updated and monitored.
Don't invite contact by email, for example, if the school secretary only checks the inbox once a week.
Try not to let the website be the responsibility of just one member of staff. At Ambleside primary school in Cumbria, an ICT teacher designed an award-winning website. On the back of this, he was headhunted by industry.
Since his departure, the school has struggled to develop the site further through lack of expertise. Having a website that is easily updated by all the staff, not just the ICT crew, is the key to making sure it can thrive and grow.
Safe and sensible The Data Protection Act means that schools are not allowed to use photographs of children in a prospectus, or on the web, without permission.
Parents can be asked to sign a consent form, giving the go-ahead for photographs to be used throughout their child's time at the school. But be aware that if a pupil doesn't want a photograph to be used (teenagers can sometimes be very image conscious) then the school should abide by that, even if the parents have signed a general consent form.
DfES guidelines state that children featured in publicity photographs should not be named, and they encourage the use of group photographs rather than individual shots. They also urge schools to exercise caution when it comes to the type of images used: putting photographs of children in swimming costumes on the internet is not a good idea and may lead to what the DfES terms "inappropriate use".
The word on the street Everyone agrees that word of mouth is the most effective form of publicity.
It can build reputations, but also destroy them.
It's important that everyone connected with a school is positive when they talk to others. Teachers carry particular influence, and careless remarks by off-duty staff can easily undermine a school's standing. Involve the whole staff in developing the marketing strategy for your school so that they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility.
But it's not just about talking; it's also about listening. According to Michael Bennie, the first step to successful marketing is to find out what other people think of you. That means asking parents and others in the community what their perceptions of the school are.
"You need to find out how you are seen by others, then you must decide how you would like to be seen by others," says Mr Bennie. "Then you can set about bridging the gap."
Did you know?
* Some schools produce their prospectus on DVD or CD-Rom
* Independent schools can have annual marketing budgets of up to Pounds 15,000
* More than 80 per cent of secondary schools have their own website, though experts are critical of the general standard of school sites
* Marketing consultants agree that word of mouth is the best form of publicity
* Schools must have the permission of parents before using a child's photo in publicity material
Main text: Steven Hastings
Additional Research: Sarah Jenkins
Next Week: Litter