Glossy brochures, websites and advertising all play their part in selling the merits of a school but, right now, what matters most is trust.
For a school to function well, parents, students, teachers and support staff all must trust in their school’s governance. They will want to know it is up to the job, especially when reputational challenges are everywhere.
Maintaining or building trust is an important function of the head teacher and the governors at any time. If a school is in a crisis, it’s vital.
A fundamental part of building trust is to understand how important it is to communicate, communicate and communicate again. In every school, no matter how well established or prestigious, there are issues that have to be engaged with and which simply won’t vanish by being ignored or wished away.
Tackling them head on, openly and transparently, builds trust, although to hard-pressed teachers and governors it may not feel like it in the teeth of a social media storm or an angry email campaign organised by aggrieved parents.
Part of the gift of good school leadership, and a strong communications and marketing team, is understanding the issues and choosing the best ways to respond and engage.
Schools that have already grasped the nettle have increased the frequency and sophistication of their communications to be able to handle an audience that has grown from pupils, parents and governors, to including the media, the locality, the teaching unions, foreign countries (for their overseas students and schools) and even the government, where relevant.
Engagement may be a single letter, a mass email, an invitation to meet, a phone call, a press release announcing new initiative or a change in school policy. What matters is who sends it and when, getting the right tone, and being able to respond to challenges or questions. Communications is always a two-way process.
Get it right, and you have a school that has a fighting chance of weathering the storm,and equally importantly, is equipping itself with the communication techniques and approaches necessary for succeeding in the 21st century.
But get it wrong, and heads may roll.
For marketing and communications teams, it can be hard to switch between promoting the positives of a school – their traditional focus – to crisis management and appropriate messaging, and all in real time.
Naturally, schools cannot avoid their operational realities. They need to attract students in order to survive whether they are private, state or charitable schools such as church schools.
As a former reviewer for the Good Schools Guide, I have watched schools grapple with mind-bogglingly complex ethical and social issues.
Issues which were once seen as the preserve of far-sighted activists, politicians and futurologists – such as pandemics, environmental catastrophe, inequality, diversity, privilege, working with international partners and varying cultural norms, the impact of porn on young people’s behaviour, the woke agenda, and trans and LGBTQ rights – are here, now, looming large. These issues cut to the heart of the educational system today and every school is affected.
I have been impressed by how readily school heads are stepping up to the challenge, and how adaptive and intelligent many of their responses have been. The response from the private sector to the Covid pandemic showed just how resourceful schools can be, and how quickly they can react. Application figures to private schools post-pandemic increased in response.
Considering public response to topical issues, reflecting on the school’s role in the community and how they can contribute more, giving back to the less privileged and making a material (often unpublicised) difference requires broad thinking and careful application. It is worth planning for issues which may arise, before they arise. Horizon scanning should be part of the business model for all schools, whether private or state.
Parents are being asked to trust the leadership of schools to do the ‘right thing’ – which is tricky in a time of moral relativism – even when this may challenge their personal world view.
Good communication is not easy, it requires constant effort and attention and sound judgement. In a world where culture wars fires are easier to stoke than to extinguish, no communications plan or its execution will be perfect. But a communications plan is a necessary fact of life in modern education, and provides the means and opportunity to build trust.
By Kate Vick, Consultant at Paternoster Communications
To discuss your school’s challenges or ambitions in confidence, please call Paternoster for an initial review. We have a huge amount of experience in marketing and crisis management for schools.