How much should you spend promoting your school?

Posted on 07/11/2011


Following on from the article in the TES in October 2011 and my follow up letter, what is it reasonable to spend money on to promote your school?

It’s easy to criticise headline figures without knowing all the details. If this were just the budget for all marketing activity for 20 academies that’s £10,000 per academy a year, not a lot to pay for prospectuses, a website, a few banners and other basic promotional materials. If the activity included some fundraising activity this may have been a bargain.

However the article stated it was to ‘complement the charity’s existing in-house marketing team’ and ‘to handle its communications, public relations and stakeholder relationships’, which is starting to look like pure PR and that is always dangerous territory, even if you can make a sound business case internally. Spending on PR, these days tends to create, well, bad PR.

That is exactly what had happened here. By putting the tender out, without realising the communications implications, the Trust had created some bad PR for itself on a project aimed at building good PR!

Let me be fair and say it would not have been easy to create good PR around this sort of tender, but it may have helped to clarify first, exactly how the money was to be spent, so if there were any items that were non-controversial they were removed from the headline figure, and also to break the figures down per school. £10,000 per school would probably not have drawn the header writer’s eye quite so much as that magic £1 million figure.

This does raise the question what is a reasonable amount for a school to spend on promotion and is any spending legitimate?

Again, it’s easy to go for the headlines and say schools should only spend on books, IT and other direct spending on students. But that is simplistic.

Schools do have to produce prospectuses and websites and print and design costs money. Amateur design does not inspire and motivate students and their parents/carers, nor does it send out signals to potential new staff that this is a school that aspires to high standards. In the long-term that can cost more than it saves.

I know one college that tried to dispense with a printed prospectus and just put information on its website. Financially it was a disaster: to save £10,000 on print within little over a month recruitment was down and the college was heading for a massive fall in income. It cost more to repair that damage than any saving could achieve. It was also potentially discriminatory: although everyone should look to maximise web use and minimise print which is damaging to the environment and more expensive, a lot of people still have limited access to the internet and any promotional or other communications need to be accessible in the widest possible way.

There are two particular initiatives that will also put pressure on many schools to up their game in good communications.

One is the new inspection framework, where the greater emphasis on no- or little-notice inspections will mean the days of schools (and others) producing freshly printed leaflets, posters and other displays ready for the inspection visit will be irrelevant, and many would argue that is a good thing at many levels.

The other initiative, also from Ofsted, is Parent View. This is arguably the most important, as reputation management will become more and more a key responsibility for the head and schools would be well advised to look at ways of ensuring they have good two-way communications with parents and other key stakeholders so they are constantly taking the temperature of where problems may be arising, and correcting them before they become an issue. That is not about good PR, and most certainly not spin. In business it would come within the field of marketing, but quite simply it is just good management and is much deeper than just PR.

Parent View, is not really so new. Parents have for a long time had the ability to feed back comments to Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) has for an even longer time had the power to send in inspectors with no notice, that it is a power that has been used very sparingly in an extreme cases. There was a case a few years ago, however, when I was working at Ofsted, where the then HMCI Christine Gilbert, sent in a no-notice inspection team on the back of complaints from parents. Parent View just makes the process more mainstream and, it would seem, more likely to trigger this sort of response.

There is scope though for a lot of schools to improve their communications and a lot of ways now how that can be good quality and low cost and I will be coming back to that theme in future posts.

For now, here is the link to the TES article that sparked this debate and my letter that was published in response.

Posted in: Ofsted, Uncategorized