A HELPING HAND: WHY SCHOOLS SHOULD ENGAGE WITH THIRD PARTIES

Tim Knight

The relentless drive for greater school autonomy has meant enormous upheaval in the UK’s education landscape over the last decade.

The Department for Education’s recent announcement that 22,000 more free school places have been created is the latest development in this shift towards an autonomous model of education.

This transformation of the education market brings with it both an opportunity and a threat for schools: competition. There’s now more pressure than ever for a school’s offering to stand out from the crowd. So what can schools do to achieve this?
One way in which schools can take advantage of this newly found freedom and differentiate themselves from the growing competition is by establishing links with third parties – including businesses, politicians and the media. These groups can add to the educational offering to pupils and directly and indirectly promote a school – by mentioning them in parliament or through generating favourable press coverage as a result of their association. Schools are not siloes, and should take advantage of their position at the heart of local communities.

It works with a degree of cause and effect: a local business could, for example, provide mentorship to students, the school’s constituency MP visits to celebrate the programme’s success and then the local newspaper publishes the story. The benefits to the school in this instance would be threefold – pupils benefit from the mentoring, the school enjoys a greater profile amongst political decision makers following the MP’s visit, and the ensuing positive press coverage makes the school a more attractive proposition for parents considering where to send their children.

Establishing links with businesses and actively engaging with the media is beneficial for both pupils and school management. As well as providing mentoring, businesses can show students what they learn in the classroom is directly applicable to working life beyond school. At PLMR, we have linked schools with companies that are keen to help the schools develop learning projects. Many of the education clients we work for have benefitted from this. Parents recognise that the school has considerations of the children’s long term prospects and the development of the skills to be successful in the modern world, as well as the exam hall.

Innovative partnerships are also a way of attracting political attention. Securing visits from local MPs and leading figures in education, such as Ministers and Shadow Ministers, is always one of our top priorities when working with schools because they are the decision makers who have a direct influence over a school, particularly if it is looking to grow. When the application to expand drops on a desk in Whitehall, they are going to look upon it more favourably if the existing school is well known and highly regarded.
A visit from an important politician is also an effective way to generate local and national media coverage. Local newspapers are always keen to hear of a success story on their patch, so take advantage of this. As well as engendering good will from the school’s stakeholders, it helps to protect its reputation against any future crises.

Parents pay close attention to the media, particularly the local press, so having positive coverage helps enforce the idea that the school is a market leader and one of the best in the area, or even country. Actively seeking to generate column inches may have been considered unnecessary 15 or 20 years ago but in this current climate for education, it is one way a school can gain invaluable recognition for their work.

If schools don’t make the most of the freedoms provided by becoming academies and free schools pupils will lose out and parents will simply just go elsewhere.  Today schools must look beyond the school gates and engage with other bodies who can help them. In an ever more competitive market in education, schools that don’t try and get ahead of the rest will just get left behind.

This article was first published on the SMT Magazine website

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