Education: The heads who lead from the front

A new breed of dynamic headteacher is leading the transformation of failing schools from the poshest public variety to the lowliest, cash- strapped primary institution
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When Edward Gould took over as headmaster of trouble-torn Marlborough College in 1993, one of the first things he did was to shift the angle of his desk in his study so he could face people as soon as they came through the door. It was part of an attempt to stamp his headship from the start. "Move your desk" was advice borrowed from Eric Anderson, a former Eton headmaster.

In 1986, when Carole Evans became headteacher of Priory Park Primary School - a failing school in a deprived area of Slough just down the road from Eton - she went one step further. Out went the old headteacher's study with desk and in came an open-plan executive-style suite with glass walls, making the headteacher visible to everyone.

Both join the ranks of those headteachers who have transformed the image of their schools and made them popular by the strength of their own personalities. Carole Evans was awarded a CBE at the beginning of this year. Marlborough has received the ultimate accolade in the latest edition of the Good Schools Guide: "Famous designer-label co-ed boarding school now back in fashion."

All the money that the Government is spending on a National College for School Leadership will end up being wasted if the governors and managers of schools are not trained to appoint heads with clarity of vision and the personality to communicate it.

This is the first ingredient for public relations success, and it applies equally to all schools, from the largest public school to the smallest primary school. It is not something that new headteachers can learn in training sessions: it is a quality that is instinctive and innate.

Teachers at Northicote School, Wolverhampton - the first secondary school to be named and shamed by Ofsted back in 1994 - now leave their doors open in case Sir Geoff Hampton, their recently knighted headteacher, wants to drop in. He never stays long in his office. Within a week of arriving at Marlborough, headteacher Edward Gould became a legend. Pupils remarked that he must have at least three lookalikes! He appeared to be everywhere - out in the fields picking up litter, marching round and inspecting the flower beds and dropping in on classes.

The four other ingredients of good public relations flow from the ripple effects of infectiously enthusiastic leadership: a staff willing to promote the school; parents who naturally become great ambassadors for the school; a community that feels it has a stake in the school; and some special feature which involves the whole school and sets it apart like the Derbyshire infants school headteacher (see right) who has established phenomenal links with nationally known businesses.

Some of the grand upmarket schools which spend pounds 30,000 a year on prospectuses and the same amount again on advertising to promote themselves could learn a great deal from cash-starved downmarket former sink schools whose reputations have risen from the ashes. By and large it takes time and energy rather than money to promote a school.

In the 1970s MORI carried out a survey on behalf of some of the top multi- national companies to find out how people become familiar with their names or their products. These companies spend millions on advertising and promotion.

However, the survey found that members of the public were 25 times more likely to have heard about them by passing their buildings or knowing someone who worked in their offices than through their advertising. So schools which involve their staff in promotion and have clear signs outside their premises will have an edge over their competitors.

At Northicote School all staff are involved in the school's development plan. There is a special in service training day each year for both teaching and non-teaching staff to review the plan. Every member of staff can join the marketing committee which meets for 40 minutes most Friday lunchtimes to discuss new initiatives and to review progress.

I have carried out public relations audits at nearly 100 independent schools over the past 10 years. I often ask to meet the non-teaching staff. Cooks, cleaners and caretakers are amazed that anyone should bother to consult them for their ideas on school promotion. Yet at Haggerston School in Hackney, east London, another school whose reputation has been resurrected, one of the best ideas for welcoming visitors across the threshold (piped music) came from the site manager. I have found that non-teaching staff are often more realistic than teachers and have closer links with parents and the local community than teachers.

One of the first things Geoff Hampton did at Northicote was to contact every parent. He told me: "The parents were demoralised. I knew I had to win them over if the school was going to be successful."

Priory School, Slough, is fortunate to have a leading member of the local parish council whose job is to promote the school.

Schools such as Emrys ap Iwan which are adept at public relations have something which singles them out - a special expertise and a special reputation. It is best if this involves the whole school. It can be work with the community or indeed work with industry and it pervades the curriculum.

Other schools get a good community reputation by doing something special that separates them from other schools. For example Emrys ap Iwan, a secondary school at Abergele, which is situated on the North Welsh coast between Rhyl and Colwyn, opens its library and information centre to local people every day - except for Christmas Day. Local people can join the sixth form for lessons (and up to 100 do so). They can go for a swim in the pounds 700,000 swimming pool and then have a massage and beauty treatment in the beauty parlour. There are two hairdressing salons for those who are brave enough to entrust their hair to students, and there is a keep-fit centre. Perhaps then it is not surprising to see that the pupil roll at the school has shot up from 1,100 to 1,600 in the past five years.

Tim Devlin's manual 'Public Relations & Marketing for Schools - Practical Strategies for Success', has just been published by Financial Times Pitman Publishing.