Controversy over proposed PR bill (from the TES)

Posted on 07/11/2011


Media collage(Original article from the TES)

The use of taxpayers’ money by academy chains has been called into question after it emerged that the UK’s largest sponsor is to spend £1 million on public relations.

Quotation from textUnited Church Schools Trust (UCST) and its subsidiary United Learning Trust (ULT), which sponsors 20 academies across the country, is advertising for a PR company to take care of its external communications for £200,000 a year over the next five years. The chosen company will be asked to look after the media coverage of ULT’s 11 private schools as well as its academies.

According to the trust’s tender, it is looking for “an external supplier to handle its communications, public relations and stakeholder relationships” to complement the charity’s existing in-house marketing team. A spokesperson for UCST, which has an annual turnover of around £200 million, said the £1 million was “just a guide price” and that it hoped applicants would offer less than that in order to make “serious savings”.

The trust’s academy arm has suffered a turbulent few years. Both of its Sheffield academies were judged to be inadequate by Ofsted in 2009, with Sheffield Park placed in special measures. Then education secretary Ed Balls banned the group from taking on any more schools until their existing academies improved. Last year, a third ULT school, Stockport Academy, was judged to be inadequate, placing the chain in fresh turmoil.

However, the current Government has lifted the ban on expansion and the trust’s rehabilitation has continued with the announcement that Jon Coles, the Department for Education’s director of standards in schools, is to be its new chief executive.

The trust’s decision to employ a PR company has been heavily criticised by heads’ and teachers’ unions, which believe public funding is being sucked out of the school system. Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads’ union the NAHT, said money being spent on public relations was money not being spent on “books and teachers”.

“Parents should already have all the means necessary to judge whether they want to send their child to a certain school,” Mr Hobby said. “You have to question whether you need that kind of level of spin to be in education.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union the ATL, said the trust’s move showed there was a growing lack of accountability when it came to how academy chains were spending public money. “It is becoming harder and harder for the Government to track how these charities are spending taxpayers’ money,” Dr Bousted said. “The point is we don’t know what the spending plans of these chains will be.”

However, David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation, a cluster of five academies in Bristol, said there was a need for PR in education. The federation employs an in-house director of communications, who works to boost its profile in the area.

“While I think £1 million is an awful lot of money, I do think there is a place for PR in schools and I certainly see the value of it,” Mr Carter said. “Our communications director has the skills to publicise our success in the local press, as well as designing all our marketing material and controlling our websites.”

UCST finance director James Nicholson said: “We will be judging bids on value for money and expertise. We have made no commitment to the budget, but the ballpark provided represents 0.1 per cent of the group’s turnover.

“We operate 31 schools and academies across England, dealing with external stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally on a daily basis. We value the importance of open and transparent communication very highly.”


UCST and ULT have recently appointed Jon Coles, one of the most senior civil servants working in the Department for Education, as their new chief executive. Mr Coles, currently director general for education standards at the DfE, will take up his post in the new year.

Speaking of Mr Coles’ move, education secretary Michael Gove said: “Jon is an extremely talented public servant. He has played a hugely influential role in all aspects of education policy during his time at the Department, and it is no exaggeration to say that he has had a profound impact on improving the education that many millions of children have received in this country.”

The announcement follows the anticipated departure of Sir David Bell, permanent secretary at the DfE, who will take on the role of vice- chancellor at Reading University.

Source: In a spin over £1m PR bill. Unions hit out at chains’ lack of accountability on spending. By Richard Vaughan. Published in TES magazine on 28 October, 2011

My response published 4 November 2011

As a former marketing manager in further education and government, including Ofsted, I was taken aback by the £1 million public relations budget being proposed by United Church Schools Trust (“In a spin over an academy sponsor’s £1m PR bill”, 28 October). Many FE marketing departments, with a more complex and competitive marketing task, would delight at that sort of budget, which looks more appropriate for a national operation.

Quotation from text

Many schools do need to improve their communications with parents and other stakeholders. The new Ofsted inspection framework and Parent View, for example, will increase pressure on schools to have a more strategic and professional approach to communications.

Professional prospectuses, websites, newsletters and blogs can help raise pupils’ aspirations to produce good-quality work themselves. Some schools are very good at this. Some miss the point that their pupils are highly media and IT savvy and sub-standard communications materials can undermine aspiration.

That said, there needs to be a clear distinction between legitimate and necessary communications and PR spin. Schools and colleges should primarily spend their money on improving the educational experience and attainment of their pupils.

It is not difficult and not expensive to get coverage in local media, though there is no guarantee your audiences will spot the story, and circulation of local media has been on a drastic decline: communications strategies have to go a lot further than PR.

It would be ironic if the negative coverage this report has now received in the media might in itself require a higher budget than would have been necessary before.

Leigh Horton, Marketing consultant.

Source: £1m PR-spend story needs … good PR. By Leigh Horton. Published in TES magazine on 4 November, 2011