Education quandary

'Our school has been getting some bad publicity because of the out-of-school behaviour of some of our pupils. How can we "sell" the good things about the school to the media without professional help?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

There are still some schools that think that public relations is not what they should be about, but it is just plain dumb to ignore the power of spin and marketing in modern life. Especially when most good schools are gold mines of interesting stories. So recognising the need for good public relations is half the battle. The next is working out how to get your message out.

But you don't need professional help to do this, says Tim Devlin, author of Public Relations and Marketing for Schools, and one of the country's most experienced educational PR consultants, not least because journalists would always rather talk directly to someone in a school than go through an intermediary.

He advises that you find someone in school who can act as a press officer, "someone who is patient, humorous, and not too naive", who should acquire a working knowledge of the local newspapers and radio stations, and then contact a local reporter, explain to them that they are new to the job, and ask to meet for a drink. They should take along a shopping list of things that they think might interest the paper, he says, and take it from there – always keeping in mind that newspapers do love a good photo-opportunity.

According to surveys, more than half of all maintained schools now have someone looking after the press, and that person will often be given a small amount of money, or some time off teaching to do this. But it is a wise investment. Not only does good publicity reinforce parental pride in a school, and so encourage them to spread the word – the most powerful recommendation any school can have – it can also be invaluable in times of crisis.

Other schools go about it in different ways. Some encourage pupils to submit reviews and reports to local papers, or to phone in to local radio stations; others invite journalists in to give talks; one school buys a termly page in a free local newspaper to publicise its successes.

Sometimes, a press officer can help. A comprehensive in the north of England hired one at an hourly rate to brief the media about all the good things happening as it came out of special measures. Part of her success was in finding new angles on well-worn topics, but that is always something schools can do for themselves if they develop the right mindset.

Readers' advice

Your situation reflects a pervasive negative attitude towards education in general, in which good news is no news. The tide is, perhaps, beginning to turn, and the General Teaching Council has recognised that teachers and others involved in education must lead in seizing this opportunity to create a positive profile for teaching.

There are many things to celebrate in education in terms of both pupils' and teachers' own achievements. My own small school has just received an Achievement Award, which we will definitely be publicising in the local press.

Ensuring that the public understands the significant contribution that teachers make to society underpins all of the GTC's work, and we are now working to produce a media guide to help schools to be proactive in promoting their successes.

We expect it to cover topics such as how to develop a positive profile for your school, how to make contact with your local media, how to organise photo-calls, how to write press releases, and tips for dealing with the press. It will also cover other marketing tools such as developing newsletters and identifying speaking opportunities.

Sarah Bowie, West Yorkshire

Use the resources that you have. Surely you have some parents who are involved in the media or marketing who would give you a hand? My children's primary school used to use a mother who had worked in magazines to act as a volunteer press-officer. It's good for the children, too, to see that people outside school are interested in what they're doing.

Sam Wendel, Plymouth

At the Haberdashers' Monmouth Schools, we make every effort to build up and maintain good contacts with local, regional and national media. The advantages, as we see it, include celebrating success, which should be an intrinsic part of the operation of any good school, especially as highlighting the successes of pupils helps to boost the confidence of the individuals and teams involved; keeping the local community up to speed with what the Schools are doing, in order to prevent a "them and us" mentality and to create a sense of local involvement and pride in the Schools; and enhancing the reputation and knowledge of the Schools, which can help in both the recruitment of pupils and staff. We also feel that, in the event of having to handle bad news, it allows us to offer some level of protection to our pupils and their families, since keeping an open dialogue with the press during difficult times gives us a chance for redress on issues and also a warning about when and where a story will be published.

Sarah Lee, Haberdashers' Monmouth Schools

Next week's quandary

'What can I do to persuade my children's primary school to do more music? They do very little, and what they do is uninspired. I think it is scandalous that such an important area is being ignored, and I've talked to the head about it, but he says that there is no time now that the literacy and numeracy hours take up so much of the day. However, I suspect that the truth is that it's not his field, and he's just not interested'

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce by next Monday, 22 April, at 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; by fax 020-7005 2143; or by e-mail at, with details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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