Turn notoriety to your good

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Would a school's bad publicity put you off applying for a job? Some would argue that it could attract the right people to face the challenges, while others disagree completely, reports Chris Bunting

Schools which have open relationships with the media may have a critical advantage in the increasingly competitive teacher recruitment market, according to the head of one of Britain's most publicised schools.

William Atkinson, the headteacher of Phoenix High in Hammersmith, west London, and an inspiration for Lenny Henry's character in the television drama Hope and Glory, urged fellow heads to jettison traditional views of press relations as exercises in damage limitation, though he warned that they did have to be careful their statements were not misinterpreted by journalists.

Mr Atkinson said that despite the damaging publicity last year when his school plunged in the GCSE league tables, the media had acted as a key recruiting sergeant in his efforts to improve standards at "one of the most challenging schools in the country".

"Negative publicity is bad and we don't want it," he said. "But there are people out there who positively want to work in this school, who want to make a difference in the lives of young people.

"People who apply because of the publicity have a more developed idea of what life is going to be like here. They have the kind of application and tenacity that we need."

However, Anna White, head of The Ridings School in Halifax, which endured national notoriety nearly five years ago after a breakdown in discipline among pupils, said the impact of the media interest on her school's recruitment had been generally negative. "It doesn't mater how much good publicity you have in the meantime," she said. "Mud sticks."

She rejected the suggestion that national publicity might have the positive effect of attracting ambitious teachers wanting to meet the challenges posed. While a few applications might be inspired by curiosity, she said those who made it to the end of the recruitment process were applying for their own professional reasons.

"Basically, I don't think any lasting good comes out of positive or negative publicity. You cultivate the local paper, you keep in touch with your communities, but it is much better not to be in the national press at all."

Tim Devlin, an educational public relations consultant, said the effect of publicity was not predictable. "I remember talking to one head whose school had been slated in The TES. The next day he had people coming up saying: 'So glad you were in The TES'. They hadn't read it; they were just pleased the school was mentioned."

But he said not all publicity was good publicity. A scandal about private school pupils taking drugs was unlikely to have a profound effect on recruitment, but anything that gave the impression of the school as an unpleasant place to work was likely to have an impact.

"The most important issue is whether the publicity is sustained. Isolated negative publicity is unlikely to be important, but the repetition of bad coverage tends to sink into people minds," he said.

Peter Gummer, director of recruitment at Gabbitas, a headhunting agency for schools, said the private sector prospered when bad publicity hit state schools. "Any considerable negative publicity means we get more state teachers approaching us."

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