Regardless of where you stand in your personal, professional or political opinion on free schools or academies in England, there are some models out there that are successful and thriving.
As more people take an interest in this model and style of education, free schools are looking to increase their impact on the locality by showing the community they are a school with a high standard of education, and an asset to the community.
A business model that needs to act in a business way to thrive and survive, with a website being one string to their marketing bow.
Free schools need to show that, as an academic establishment, they are worth considering as an educational ‘option’ and that they offer fairness and transparency, alongside a high, consistent standard of education.
You know what you need to say but HOW?
And it is this string to the ‘marketing bow’ – the HOW – that needs to be looked at carefully – because you are being watched…
Whether people like it or not, the school market has and is changing. The ways schools are funded has altered and the freedom that allows providers, parents and teachers to know start their own schools is liberating.
But there are still rules to follow, not just in conduct and educational standard but also marketing and advertising.
And one agency watching free schools is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA); this is the independent regulator of advertising across ALL media, including websites – take a look www.asa.org.uk
The double edge sword
And so, as you lay claim to the local community that you are an asset, as a free school to the children and parents, as well as the other members of the community as a whole, you may be tempted to use certain words or phrases that invite a golden glow to your school.
And why not? After all, as a not-for-profit school run along business lines, you need to attract and cogitate positive attention. But here in lies the rub: our wording can go a little bit over board.
Take a complaint that was made against a free school advertising its educational provision as ‘outstanding’. Those of us who know the ins and outs of education know that this is the coveted word that all education establishments aim to hear whispered from the mouth of OFSTED, the inspectorate of schools in England.
It is a word but it is also a level of educational attainment and ASA ruled that the free school, by advertising and marketing itself as an ‘outstanding educational provider’, it gave an unintentional, yet false impression that OFSTED had said this… when in fact, they had not.
If you log on to the ASA website and look through the ‘rulings’ section, you will see other free school there who have been told their marketing and advertising claims do not meet the advertising code.
And so, what lessons can we learn?
- Marketing and advertising is a ‘specialist’ area – putting together a quick leaflet is one thing, orchestrating a marketing vision and executing it to the locality is another. Get it wrong – even the faintest ‘whiff’ – and opposition to your school model will pounce on it from a height. Unfortunately, reporting companies and businesses to ASA is a ‘common protest tactic’; the media invariably pick up on it and love the negativity of the story. Stay one step ahead and get specialist advertising and marketing help.
- Have a vision – you had one when you created your free school, so much so, you probably have a mission statement that tells the local community what you plan to achieve. Use this and look to the future when it comes to your advertising and marketing.
Invest in professional marketing advice
However, in order for your free school to be a success you will need to grasp this mettle, and market yourself. Just like local businesses, community groups and charities all tell you why you should buy/donate/volunteer, you need to tell parents and children you are there and what a fab place is it to learn and progress…
This is not something educationalists – teachers, head teachers or governors – are too adept at doing (no offence intended) simply because it is not something that schools (or staff) have had to do too much of.
You need to do it in order to:
- Reach your enrolment targets – an empty school is not teaching any child anything…
- Encourage excellent staff to work with you – a full classroom of eager children need a teacher; the better they are, the better your school will shine!
- It’s all about community – and in order to be truly local, you need local people are governors as well as just generally being supportive
- Funding – you need money. Simple.
- Reputation – you are starting from scratch, up an uphill slope. Build it right, and right from the very start
- Self-promotion – it really is all about saying ‘look at us, look at our students, look at our locality and our community’
Created for Canadian schools it looks at the process of a marketing strategy, from introducing your school, to finding your place in a crowded market to the follow up needed to turn potential students into real ones!
Is it all about a website?
Clearly not, it is a little more involved than that. A website is part of your overall marketing strategy, the online bit (website, social media etc.) that goes hand-in-hand with the offline stuff you will do – the school open days, the leaflets, the cards, the adverts in the local paper etc.
Building a website is essential, and just as essential is the content. And if nothing else, avoid the word ‘outstanding’…
Need more help?
ASA is a great start point for the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of adverts but it is now recognised that schools also need tailored advice; one great online resource is www.marketingadviceforschools.com. And, of course, we can help too.