Schools should do more to publicly celebrate partnership work
Matthew Smith, editor of Attain Magazine, details his wish that schools would talk more about community partnerships.
Most independent schools appear, on face value, to be pretty good at their marketing to prospective parents. But what if there was a factor which is rarely promoted yet should make a significant difference when it comes to the process of choosing a school? As a parent, you would want to know – especially if it concerned whether your child would grow-up understanding the value of community, the importance of respect for others and a broader sense of responsibility. So why don't more independent schools talk about the work they do for community outreach and partnerships?
Independent schools have ended up stuck in a marketing rut and, sadly, prospective parents are to blame. Marketing is based around those key factors which schools think influence parents. At the very top of this list is, of course, academic attainment. As a result, community projects and partnerships rarely get a look in. Prospective parents are a thousand times more likely to be concerned by a school's position in a league table than whether they are engaged with local state schools in partnership work. And therein lies the problem.
School marketing needs to shift away from academic outputs and focus instead on the ethos of the school – the essential qualities which make up the school's DNA and are instilled into pupils. At the heart of this ethos is the school's role in the wider community. The problem is that it's an area of school life which doesn't tend to go near the marketing department and so does not get the attention it deserves. If a school had to draw up a list of key concerns from prospective parents, I doubt community outreach would make the top ten – yet it's a crucial factor in shaping the very ethos of a school.
But are prospective parents wrong to be interested in whether a school is 'academic enough' for their child? No, but the problem is that the tool which is available for them to use in this 'academic' decision-making process – namely league tables – does more to hinder than to help. So whilst prospective parents can be blamed for school marketing being wrongly focused around their perceived needs, let's be very clear: it isn't their fault.
League tables and other forms of school rankings have been criticised for years. Yet when it comes to school marketing, too many schools find themselves humouring prospective parents by attaching meaning to their position in a league table. Few are brave enough to point out to these poor parents that these statistical calculations and rankings actually have no value. Of course, the justification is that they give parents evidence: but evidence of what? Why do the average grade achievements of a cohort of pupils at a school have any relevance as to what your own child could achieve if he or she went there?
Achievement is more than the sum of its parts and so while examinations are important, the values a school instils are much more significant in the long term. Choosing a school is usually a combination of the practical and emotional; the ethos and values will have underpinned almost every parent's choice even if they started off thinking they needed to be concerned about league tables. Partnerships, community and outreach work all underpin this ethos and add so much to the life of a school and its pupils.
For many years, independent schools have quietly been engaged with all manner of partnership and community projects. And all this started long before governments asked for overt demonstrations of public benefit. But ironically, the sector's failure to blow its own trumpet continues to come at a significant cost. Prospective parents are asking the wrong questions and the right message is not making its way to government. Too many MPs do not appreciate the contribution independent schools make to communities in their constituencies. Schools have not been promoting it. We see it at Attain when a well-meaning school sends a news story about a sports tournament which involves local primary schools: the write-up is all about who won and not about the fact that new friendships were made, ties were strengthened and communities boosted. If MPs actually knew what was happening, outdated notions of independent schools being ivory towers might finally be banished to the history books.
And it doesn't end there. For many parents, opting for an independent school is a divisive issue, especially if they live in a close-knit community. What's wrong with the local primary school? Is your child better than ours? If there was a greater understanding of independent schools – and they were not perceived as being detached from their communities – sending your child to one would be considerably less divisive. Partnership work needs far better communication so prospective parents see its value.
So we all need to change. Prospective parents need to dismiss the league tables and schools need to look again at their marketing. When a prospective parent visits a school, the key question they should ask is: will my child be happy and why? The answer from the school is exactly what should underpin their marketing. Maybe it's time for Attain's league tables? The only problem is that we would award all 1,323 ISC schools with joint first place. But maybe we should do it – just to make a point.
Attain is the official magazine of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools.