Both state and independent schools are now looking at public relations
as a means of countering an abundance of negative images in the press
Last week’s stabbing of a 14-year-old at the school which Learco
Chindama - headmaster Philip Lawrence’s killer - attended, is just the
latest example of a school grabbing the headlines.
And it seems that schools finding themselves in the media spotlight are
beginning to turn to PR for the salvation of their reputations.
In September the William Penn school in Dulwich, earlier snubbed by
Labour health spokeswoman Harriet Harman who lived locally but sent her
son elsewhere, relaunched itself as the Dulwich High School for Boys
with the support of PR firm Shandwick Consultants.
And last week the local authority responsible for the troubled Ridings
school in Halifax, called in Green PR and Marketing to handle its media
relations and implement a research project.
In recent years, higher education’s spending on PR and marketing has
spiralled. So do these unusual moves by secondary schools indicate a
rich new source of PR business?
The answer lies in understanding the factors behind this apparently
sudden interest in PR from schools.
‘The Ridings was a case of crisis management,’ says Mark Payne, senior
consultant at Shandwick. But couldn’t the same be said of Dulwich? ‘No,’
he replies, ‘the Harriet Harman affair happened several months before we
were called in.’
One national education correspondent has noticed a new trend in schools’
relations with the media. He says: ‘Headmasters are more savvy in PR
terms, sending me press releases and making themselves available for
Fran Abrams, education correspondent for the Independent, says: ‘As a
result of league tables and independent choice, schools now feel a need
to sell themselves. It’s good that they think about how the outside
world perceives them but they are being forced to compete with one
Roger Eames’ Top Class PR specialises in the independent sector with six
schools as clients. He provides media relations, crisis management, the
production of brochures and media training.
‘The independents have suffered from falling applications due to the
recession and outdated perceptions. A school charging pounds 12,000 per
pupil per year has a lot to gain from getting its publicity right,’ he
But despite the fact that the Independent Schools Information Service
(ISIS) has been urging schools to undertake PR for years, Eames says
business growth has been slow. ‘The average headmaster is still
suspicious of the image of professional PR people,’ he says.
John Dunford, headmaster of the Durham Johnston Comprehensive says PR in
his school is handled by one of the deputy heads and that this is
typical in the state sector.
However Dunford, formerly president of the Secondary Heads Association,
recognises the necessity for PR at a generic and individual level.
‘Stories like The Ridings are depressing for those who work in state
schools and have to read about what is really one or two schools with
grave difficulties,’ he says. For this reason Dunford is currently
trying to set up an equivalent information body to ISIS for the state
sector, to talk about its achievements.
His school also approaches local media with positive human interest
stories to counteract the media’s tendency to concentrate on the
Shandwick’s Payne believes the same issues apply to PR activity, whether
for independent or state schools. For the relaunch of Dulwich, Shandwick
urged the school to acknowledge the problems in perceptions and to look
forward, rather than back to the criticisms.
But as Payne also points out: ‘We are dealing with an area where
resources are tight. To undertake an effective programme a school needs
to spend at least the equivalent of a teacher’s salary.’
This is a central question when considering the PR business opportunity
presented by schools. The Ridings’ local authority was criticised by one
Liberal Democrats councillor for the expense of hiring a PR firm, and
this was in a state of crisis.
So how can a state school justify spending its already meagre resources
‘These days a school’s survival will depend on its ability to attract
pupils and avoid the downward spiral of a poor reputation. Public
relations could be a good investment,’ says Payne.
More food for thought is that similar questions were asked in hospitals
several years ago, and this is now a lucrative PR sector.
Schools In The Headlines
December 1995, St Georges School, Maida Vale
Headmaster Philip Lawrence is stabbed while defending a pupil
January 1996, William Penn School, Dulwich
Harriet Harman decides against sending her son to her local
comprehensive in favour of St Olaves in Bromley
April 1996, Glaisdale School, Nottingham
Staff threaten strike action after a 13-year-old is suspended for
allegedly attacking both teachers and pupils, but is returned by an
October 1996, The Ridings School, Halifax
Staff threaten strike action over 60 uncontrollable students
October 1996, Manton Junior School, Nottinghamshire
Staff strike over a 10-year-old accused of attacking other pupils. Head
teacher closes school indefinitely on health and safety grounds
November 1996, Quintin Kynaston School, North London
14-year-old boy is stabbed at the school where the killer of headmaster
Philip Lawrence was a pupil