• Alex

Checking your prospectus for porn: should schools spend money on PR?

With budgets under renewed pressure with the introduction of the new national funding formula (NFF), headteachers will be looking at ways to cut spending without compromising on educational quality. The first port of call will often be ‘back office’ costs, and in my time in education I have seen examples of waste. Cleaning contracts costing thousands where the cleaners didn’t even turn up; school premises empty after hours or during holidays because of a lack of capacity to manage the site (seriously just outsource it), or money spent on interventions without reference to the EEF toolkit.

But when you’ve finished driving value from your catering company or facilities managers, where to look next? PR can seem like low hanging fruit that needs pruning back to tackle a deficit. I’ve lost count of the times that campaigners or politicians have derided money spent on spin doctors that would be better spent on teachers. But those people will be the first to point out when a school or trust fails to communicate adequately, particularly in a crisis.

Certainly, using expensive agencies with high overheads is generally not that helpful. You probably don’t want to hire someone full time to do the job for one school, while adding the responsibility on to a busy deputy head may not be that effective. But managed properly, communications support can help your bottom line.


Whether you’re in charge of a large MAT or head of a small rural primary, you need to demand specific results from your comms team.

These are my seven top tips:

  1. Agree a clear set of deliverables for your comms team to improve admissions numbers. Although some areas will see a cut, per pupil funding is on average £5,343 in the provisional NFF. As Tom Barnes from Arthur Communications puts it, “the most effective way to ease budgetary pressures for undersubscribed schools is to recruit more pupils. If a PR firm can help you recruit an extra 10 or 20 pupils into year 7 they are more than paying for the service they provide. We have worked with schools that have seen a return on investment of up to 1,000 per cent. Employing a PR firm isn’t a vanity for schools, it makes financial sense.”

  2. Be disciplined. You need to be relentless in repeating your core message across all channels, in the way politicians do. If you want your school to be known for academic excellence, then allowing the PE department to take over your twitter feed isn’t going to help. Having an external consultant can smooth over ruffled feathers internally.

  3. Sort the wheat from the chaff. Most local papers have a tiny readership for their waning print editions (there are notable exceptions of this outside London, like the Birmingham Mail but the trend is consistent). Getting a positive story in them isn’t a waste of time though – provided you share the news on your social feeds and in local parent groups. And many schools will have exceptional stories - students that have overcome adversity - that can make the nationals. Similarly, you will have far more success engaging parents from a targeted Facebook advert or a bus stop poster than an insert in the local gazette or a twitter banner, plus you can track results. Marketers like to talk knowingly about ‘feeding the funnel’ to turn awareness into applications, but with limited budgets you need to spend money on outreach that has discernible impact on recruitment.

  4. Make it professional. Parents will still judge a school by its Ofsted rating, but there’s no point adding to or detracting from the inspector’s judgement with newsletters that contain multiple typos, enough words to fill a new edition of the Bible, grainy iphone pictures and Comic Sans. If you’re going to spend thousands on a new prospectus for Open Days then make sure it has been proof read by at least 3 different eyes, after all the English department must be there for something? And once the editions arrive, make sure you get a volunteer to check *all* the copies. A few years ago an unscrupulous member of a printing company with a grievance inserted some images of scantily clad women into one of the pages of an annual report for a charity. As it was only in a handful of the printed copies, the mistake wasn’t noticed until a donor opened the report at a fundraising event. Thankfully he saw the funny side.

  5. Word of mouth is crucial. Prospective parents expect professional materials but this is by no means enough. When we hosted focus groups in a working-class area of Birmingham discussing two schools that in transition, the participants admired the glossy brochures but one of them said, “well this is all looks good, but I know from talking to other parents it’s a load of rubbish”. It wasn’t, but perceptions can lag. If the school you run is improving rapidly, then you need to ensure your existing parents, community leaders and faith groups know about it, so when they engage their networks they are armed with the facts to shift perceptions.

  6. Get out and about. Unlike many organisations who need to sell their product, you have an obvious captive audience at your feeder nurseries or primary schools. Often the best advocates for your school will not be the SLT but your star students who can talk to year 6s in a language they will relate to and alleviate their fears about going to ‘big school’. And what an excellent leadership opportunity for your older students to hone their presentation skills and gain valuable content for their UCAS applications. At the same time, supportive feeder schools will happily distribute your school newsletters to prospective parents. Translated into relevant languages and with eye catching images, even a crumpled side of A4s stuffed into a rucksack can help you meet your admission targets.

  7. Communication campaigns are changing rapidly. As Alec Dobbie, the founder of YourBabyClub, one of the fastest growing parent communities in the UK, pointed out at a recent event, “when Facebook makes an amendment to their algorithm it can have a huge impact on the numbers your campaign might reach” (for good or bad). You can’t rely on old ways of working, which is why it is still worth investing in professional advice.

ALEX BIGHAM

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