Neil Merrick on a comprehensive which learnt to capitalise on its prime historic asset. Last year Shaw House School commemorated the 350th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Charles I during the English Civil War.
The 16th-century mansion which dominates the grounds of the Newbury School and where a Roundhead fired at the former King became the focus of public attention and a crucial element of the school's image. But it has not always been like that.
Structural problems have meant that no pupils have been taught inside Shaw House since 1985. Instead, all teaching is in the permanent and temporary classrooms which surround the old house. But the comprehensive school was advised to give the mansion a higher public profile when, two years ago, it asked the Newbury software company International Business Systems for help with rethinking its image. "The building is the key selling point," said IBS managing director Dick Ormond. In an area where parents can choose from a large number of independent schools, he said, Shaw House could use its key asset to suggest that it was a state school on a par with the independent sector.
"It's a peg on which to hang your image," he said. "It presents an image of stability and suggests the school has been around for a long time."
Shaw House, a 520-pupil mixed comprehensive for 11 to 16-year-olds, was working on a new prospectus and IBS, one of 10 firms which have formed a company partnership scheme with the school, was an obvious source of advice.
"Schools are not naturally set up to sell themselves. It's not part of our training," said key stage 4 co-ordinator Wendy Sturgess, who also handles public relations at Shaw House.
Following IBS's advice, headteacher Mike Macleod took a new set of photographs for the prospectus. Two out of the three pictures on the front of the prospectus now feature the mansion and, in the main photograph, pupils are shown walking proudly out of the school gates.
Alan Mills, the school's administration manager, said it was important for the pupils to be seen facing outwards rather than looking inwards at the school. Yet Shaw House does not want to appear to be living in the past. It hopes to persuade Berkshire County Council to renovate the old house as a technology centre. "We already have extremely hi-tech facilities in the school and we hope one day to house them in a Grade I listed building," said Mr Mills.
Shaw House's use of IBS as an image consultant reflects a trend. A recent survey by the Teacher Placement Service suggested that one quarter of school associates (people from business and the community who are actively involved in schools) help with management issues.
IBS has had close links with Shaw House for about five years. It has helped sponsor a business centre at the school, assisted with the its five-year development plan and offered advice on the introduction of appraisal.
Dick Ormond also gives careers talks to pupils and, until last summer, an IBS employee was a parent governor and a member of the finance committee. "Whenever Shaw House requires help in a business area, we can wheel in the appropriate person," said Mr Ormond.
Advice on public relations strategy was provided by Dale Birch, the company's former marketing manager. As a result of a presentation given by Mr Birch, the school also created a new logo featuring Shaw House and is considering redesigning the school badge.
Over the past two years, the school has rarely been out of the news. A proposed merger of Shaw House with Turnpike School, three miles away, dominated the local headlines. Speculation on the LEA's plan to close one of the school sites lasted until Turnpike opted out.
Shaw House had to handle its public image carefully during the consultation period. Mr Macleod said staff deliberately avoided taking a position on the future of Turnpike School. "We wanted this school to be preserved," he said. "We certainly didn't want to become involved in a wrangle with professional colleagues down the road."
Dick Ormond said IBS employees who had been involved in supporting Shaw House were horrified at the suggestion that it might close. But the company agreed that the two schools should not be seen to be fighting one another.
"You don't knock the competition - you sell yourself," he explained. "In a situation where two companies are fighting each other, the one which does the knocking is the one which eventually loses out."
IBS advised Shaw House to focus on positive publicity during the consultation period. The school sent regular press releases to the Newbury Weekly News and other local media, highlighting a variety of events at what remained a thriving institution.
But the press was only interested in the proposed reorganisation. "Whenever the school got into the press, they did their utmost to dig up stories about the closure," added Mr Ormond.
A further problem arose because journalists kept confusing the issue of renovating the Shaw House building, which had been out of use for eight years, with the future of the school. But the experience demonstrated to teachers the importance of cultivating local media contacts.
"We still try to send in something positive about the school every week, " said Wendy Sturgess. "If the paper sends a photographer to the school, we fax a press release the next day."
Shaw House's publicity efforts paid off during the Charles I anniversary year. Two pupils who designed a commemorative hand stamp, including the school's logo, appeared in the Weekly News.
Most schools cannot afford to employ public relations consultants to handle their publicity. "We have to rely upon the press to take things up," said Alan Mills. "We don't have the budget to take a positive promotional line."
But the close links Shaw House has established with IBS and other firms means that it is more likely to attract media attention.
Last year, when 14-year-old Robert Wiggins shadowed Dick Ormond for three days, it was an excellent story for both the school and the company.
"If there is a chance to plug Shaw House School then we do it," said the managing director. "The publicity should be for the school rather than for us."