As schools are operating in an effective market place, the number of students they are able to attract each year is vital to the future of the institution. In this ebulletin we consider some strategies for the recruitment of new students and their parents

The beginning of March is a crucial date in the lives of headteachers, as this is the time when local authorities confirm student numbers for the following September. This is potential make or break data for schools. This information could have serious implications for the school budget and therefore necessary decisions on staffing matters. In addition, the student number information gives clear feedback on the effectiveness of the recruitment strategies adopted by the school.

As this is a key aspect of the work of school leadership, it is worth reviewing some key questions and effective strategies. Key questions to consider include:

  • What factors do parents consider when choosing a school for their children?
  • Do school-based activities make a difference?

Key factors
This is an increasingly complex decision for parents due to the increase in knowledge and information available to them. Previously there was a well-worn path from one school to the next with little thought given to the process, however, the encouragement of parental preference has led to a market place approach with some schools becoming the popular choice whilst others wither and die.

In my view there are some primary and secondary factors that are considered by parents.

Primary factors
1. Location

a. Parents want their children to associate with ‘nice’ children and this, the logic suggests, is more likely to be in affluent middle-class areas.
b. This is a challenge for schools in deprived areas; you can’t exactly relocate.

2. Standards

a. Parents are well aware of league tables and the place of particular schools. Many parents will assume a causal relationship between how good a school is and the standards achieved.

3. Reputation

a. This is the word-of-mouth variety that exists within the local community.
b. This is often the hardest for schools to tackle as it can take years to change.

Secondary factors
1. Information gleaned from the following:

a. school prospectus and websiteb. open evenings

c. school visits.

If a school is to improve recruitment, then it must think as a prospective parent and approach it from that point of view. This will enable the school to target the key areas first rather than spending too much time on areas of relative insignificance.

Schools cannot address location, but can have a substantial impact on standards and reputation. The standards issue involves paying attention to the core aspects of school: teaching, learning and assessment, an appropriate curriculum with effective care, support and guidance. Reputation can be harder to impact. One possible factor is that parents can feel detached from teaching staff. There was a time when a high proportion of teaching staff would live within their catchment area, however, that is less common now. As such parents do not see staff outside of school and teaching staff might not understand how their school community operates outside of school time.

The one group of staff who normally live within the catchment area of school are the professional support staff. They possess a wealth of information about the local community but are probably under-used as a source of information. Schools would do well to target this group to accurately identify the reputation of the school and work with them to improve it. These members of staff can be superb ambassadors for the school if they feel an emotional attachment beyond the fact that they have a job there.

Effective strategies for student recruitment
1. We don’t believe that a professional-looking school prospectus and attractive website will convince parents to choose a school; however, poor versions will certainly switch parents off.

2. Open evenings:

a. These should involve a detailed tour of the school with sample lessons taking place in each curriculum area involving current studentsb. Our open evening tours are taken by staff rather than the popular approach of using students. This change of tactic was a result of parent feedback, as they felt that staff were better placed to answer their questions. They also liked meeting the teacher and having a lengthy discussion with them. c. We found that staff were keen to volunteer for this role, as they wanted to support the school and enhance its reputation. As a leadership team we carried out training sessions for staff guides which involved a script of aspects to cover.

d. The headteacher address is a great opportunity to share with parents the key values operating within the school. My experience is that parents do not want to be faced with numerous slides about data and exam performance. They want to know that their child will be cared for, valued, kept safe and be pushed to achieve. I tend to talk about what I want for my own children whilst at school and then create the link with how I run my school in the same vein.

3. School visits:

a. More schools now offer visits for prospective parents and students during the school day to see what life is really like. b. This can be difficult to orchestrate, but it demonstrates an openness that parents appreciate.

c. Students act as guides for these events because of the constraints of releasing teaching staff.

Improving standards and a school reputation can take time and it is important that tackling these is carefully planned and part of a strategic development spanning three to five years. It is also essential that schools actively seek feedback on recruitment strategies involving parents and professional support staff in the process. This ensures that the school can be responsive to the changing needs and demands of their prospective clients and customers.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland