Marketing a state school can seem an alien concept, but more heads are turning their hands to PR to make sure their community knows what they are doing.
Such a move can reap many benefits - making recruiting and retaining staff easier, ensuring local businesses are open to sponsorship approaches, and potentially making it easier for pupils to gain work experience or university places.
When choosing a school, parents often get information from other parents and the local press, as well as from official sources, according to a Department for Children, Schools and Families report published in May called School Accountability and School Report Card.
Ofsted will also look at anything in the public domain before inspection. A well-designed, informative website could make all the difference, but don't rely on this alone.
Andy Buck, head of The Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham, says: "It's important to remember that the brand of a school is far more than the image portrayed in its prospectus and website. Every interaction the school has with parents and the community contributes to its reputation. It is the consistency of practice - the reality that backs up the rhetoric - that matters more than anything else."
In order to present a professional image, the first contact anyone has with your school needs to be thought through. Is your entrance hall welcoming? How do people answer the phone and do they know how to transfer callers to the right person?
All schools, with the exception of maintained nursery schools, are required by law to publish a prospectus every year with information for the following academic year. Your prospectus must include information about your provision for disabled pupils.
Apart from the special needs requirements, you are free to design your prospectus. Try to put yourself in the place of prospective students and their parents. What would they like to know? Consider the use of graphics, colour and different fonts. Leave enough time for design, reading and printing.
Developing a good website is essential as two-thirds of households now have internet access. You can use your site as a showcase for the work going on in your school and as a communication tool to keep pupils, parents and the community up to date.
However, the days when you could knock up a website from a few pages of HTML are gone. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires that public services make their services accessible, and that includes how people access information on the web. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has comprehensive guidelines online about how this affects websites.
Another way to market your school is via local, or national, media. Journalists are always on the look out for a story. If you can supply ideas of interest to a wide audience they will be happy to hear from you. Give your message in a single introductory sentence. The formula is to answer these six questions: What? When? Where? Who? How? Why?
Your local authority may also be geared up to carry out effective PR on your behalf. Check with them before contacting the media as they may have contacts you can use.
Many education sector organisations look for case studies. For example, Teachernet and The Key publish case studies on a range of topics. Exploring the content of these websites is a good way to get ideas about the kind of examples or case studies from your school that you could submit for publication.
But remember, to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, a school must get parental permission before photographing pupils for publicity purposes. Some local authorities, such as Warwickshire County Council, ask for this as a matter of course when children join a school.
Mr Buck concludes: "Get it right and schools are in a virtuous circle where a good brand improves the recruitment of better staff, which leads to even greater results."
Catherine Allan is specialist researcher in administration and management for The Key, an independent information service that supports school leaders. Visit www.usethekey.org.uk.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION
Here are examples of stories you could offer to the media to boost the school's image:
- A new headteacher.
- Working with the community.
- Celebrity opens sports daynew building.
- Exam results.
- Fundraising for charity.
- School installs solar panelswind turbine in bid to become greener.