Working to promote a positive image for your school can be a powerful tool for school improvement and can provide a focus for staff efforts on many fronts, argues Brin Best, education writer and director of Innovation for Education Ltd.

Have you ever had that feeling that the school down the road seems to enjoy a better image than your own? Or that parents form inaccurate opinions about your school, often based on scant evidence, that make it difficult for you to harness community support? Perhaps you’re one of those schools which has experienced some negative publicity in the press and is finding it hard to build a more favourable profile?

Whether or not one of the above questions gets you nodding, it’s clear that we are entering into a new era in terms of how schools actively manage their image. There are so many good reasons for enjoying a positive image that carefully promoting your school is now seen as an essential step for all. Even if your school currently enjoys a favourable image, it’s vital to maintain it and to enhance it further. But how can schools manage their profile and what does this mean on a day-to-day basis for your staff, students and the wider community?

There are a number of reasons why you can’t afford to ignore your school’s image:

  • there is a link between a school’s image and the achievements of its students
  • a positive image allows you to attract and retain high-quality staff
  • healthy recruitment of students is key to balancing your school’s finances
  • external funders are not interested in being associated with schools who have a poor public profile
  • promoting your image is a vital means of addressing more general school improvement issues in a focused way.

Creating a robust vision

The modern leadership of schools requires that headteachers are clear about their vision for the future. The most powerful vision for a school is one which is led by the headteacher and the leadership team, but reflects fully the views of the staff, students and the wider community.

A school vision should articulate a ‘preferred future’, setting out the features and attributes of the school in three to five years’ time. A robust vision is something that may take some time to be developed, but once in place can be a powerful point of reference for all staff. A vision can be summarised in a mission statement, which encapsulates what the school is about, for example:

  • ‘Thinking and learning together.’
  • ‘Do different, today and every day.’
  • ‘Motive, aspire, transform.’
  • ‘Lifelong learning for all.’
  • ‘Working together to enhance opportunities for all.’

By clarifying your vision, you will be able to identify the positive messages about your school that will form the core of your marketing and PR work. The exercise will also remind you of the things that bind you together as a school and the more general school improvement initiatives that staff will be working towards over the coming years.

Recognise what you already do well
Your vision will help to clarify that things need to change in order to become a more effective school. These can form central elements in your action plan for the future and the key messages that need to be sent out about your school in the future.

Equally, however, it’s important to recognise that you already do many things well and you should make the most of these positive features. In common with most schools you will have ‘unique selling points’ that can be harnessed to gain a more favourable image.

Moving things forward

Your vision and the positive features of your school that you have identified will provide a firm platform for your work to promote your school’s image. But in order for your efforts to be maximised it’s important to give the work high status by putting together a marketing/PR group. This should be led by a named coordinator, with some protected time to carry out the role, and should ideally also comprise:

  • a member of the leadership team
  • a governor
  • a member of the wider school community who is supportive of your school (eg church official, councillor, business leader etc).

Key definitions

Marketing – attracting students and parents to your school and retaining their loyalty and support

Public relations (PR) – the active maintenance of a favourable public image for your school

Working together with determination and vigour, such a group can achieve amazing results, as the case studies in this article show.

The marketing/PR group should focus on some key aims and objectives for their work, concentrating on things they can do to help the school move towards its overall vision and secure a positive image for everything it does. Note that it is not the role of this group to make other school-wide changes to move the school forward: other teams and individuals will need to play their part too. Instead, the group’s role is to help drive and manage the communication process that supports and enables the school to work towards a better future.

The need for an audit

Before embarking on any major actions, a fundamental first step is to carry out an audit of how your school is currently perceived internally and in your community. This will allow you to gather diverse evidence that will inform your work. In carrying out such an audit it’s important to be very open about what you’re hearing and finding out, even if the results surprise you!

To carry out an audit gather together the following information:

  • your own self-evaluation materials
  • the views of staff and wider members of the community
  • Ofsted inspection comments and any other official judgements on your school in the public domain (eg awards, commendations etc.)
  • results of a parent and student questionnaire into the positive and not so positive features of your school
  • newspaper cuttings about your school.

Your audit will allow you to put together a detailed picture of how your school is perceived, which can help you prioritise actions and can be revisited in the future to judge progress.

Practical strategies

Your marketing/PR group will have identified some specific actions that are appropriate to move your school forward. There are also many simple steps that you can take on a day-to-day basis:

  • ensure that all your key marketing literature reinforces the positive messages about your school you wish to convey (your prospectus is the most important document you send out)
  • issue a news release at least once a week to key print and broadcast media in your area
  • make sure you have your own school newsletter/magazine to provide a vehicle for promoting what you do on a termly or half-termly basis. Distribute this widely in your community (eg in waiting rooms, tourist information centres, cafes, new housing developments etc)
  • maintain the news section of your school website carefully, so that visitors gain a professional impression of what you do
  • approach your local supermarket, town hall or community centre to put up a display about your school or examples of students’ work
  • actively cultivate links with key influencers in your community – newspaper editors/journalists, politicians, business figures, local dignitaries
  • ensure you have a media crisis plan in case things go wrong.

Finally, remember that only by combining a carefully thought-out strategy with simple day-to-day actions will you be able to build the profile you want for your school. It will not come overnight and you must be prepared for the odd setback on the road to a brighter future.

Case study 1: Improving a school’s media profile

A rural school began a major drive to improve its media profile in order to ensure it maintained its place at the heart of the community. Though the school did not have a poor profile when the work began, neighbouring schools who were competing for student places seemed to be getting more than their fair share of positive coverage.

A part-time (two hours a week) press officer was appointed who met journalists and started to issue news releases that would get results. This was helped by teaching staff who passed on good leads for stories – slowly positive coverage of the school increased. Some time later the school hit the PR jackpot with a story about a boy who had never missed a day off school. This resulted in full-page articles in national tabloids, radio and TV interviews. The positive publicity this generated would have cost the schools tens of thousands of pounds.

A school magazine, edited by the press officer and written chiefly by students, was established to generate community interest and allow the school to issue its own good news on a regular basis.

Case study 2: Gaining a national reputation for innovative work

A school in a former mining community, now suffering from significant social deprivation, managed to secure a high profile for its innovative education projects. The school won several awards and competitions for environmental projects, creating much media interest. This spurred the school on to even more high-profile initiatives, which included building its own wind turbine to power a micro river system.

A major TES feature about this highly creative venture resulted in staff being invited to speak at national conferences about the school’s work. The latest venture saw Year 10 students visiting Lesotho in southern Africa as part of a £30,000 project to construct a wind turbine for a small village, which brought electricity to its residents for the first time. This earned the school a feature on BBC television, plus a major award for the project organiser. The school now enjoys an enviable reputation across the region for its high-quality citizenship work.

The essential elements of a school marketing and PR strategy

1. An agreed vision of a preferred future. 2. A mission statement. 3. Clarification of your school’s unique features. 4. A marketing/PR group with a named coordinator. 5. An audit of your current situation. 6. An action plan which includes practical every day activities.

7. Monitoring, evaluation and reflection.