Whether state or private, LEA or academy, all schools have one thing in common nowadays: they are having to market themselves like never before.
The increase in parental choice means schools have to work harder than ever to get their message across to prospective pupils and their families.
In terms of the process, marketing a school is really no different to marketing a business. You need to find out what it is about your ‘product’ that makes it unique, and then work out who your ideal client is. Once you know these things, it’s a matter of communicating to those potential clients.
Right now, we’re helping Rugby Free Secondary School with their marketing. This is a school with a standout proposition: over the next few years, the students and their families are helping build the school one year at a time.
The initial intake of Year 7 started in September 2016. There are 150 pupils in this first year. The school will expand year by year until it has a full complement of year groups including a sixth form.
At our first meeting, headteacher Christine Green didn’t actually have an office – although by the time we went back a few weeks later she had moved into her own space.
The school is literally under construction: while the brand new building is going up on the other side of the plot, the school is housed in the old Rokeby primary school building with some Portakabins providing supplementary classroom space.
Does any of this bother the students of the inaugural Year 7?
“If we are in the Portakabins, we have to go across the playground to go to the toilets”, says one girl. “Which is not very nice if it’s raining – but it’s the only thing I don’t like!”
It is indeed the only negative aspect of the school any of the kids comes out with the whole time we are here.
We all know a school is a community rather than a building. Right now, Rugby Free Secondary School really is living out that philosophy.
Their community is so strong, the building hardly matters. You get the impression it would still work even if they were using tents.
Although positive energy seems to radiate throughout the school, Christine Green is the main source. Unlike heads of LEA schools, she’s been able to handpick her team of staff – one reason perhaps, that this team seems to gel so well.
Christine has also been the key salesperson for the school prior to and since the launch, visiting primary schools and other events in order to talk up Rugby Free Secondary School. “She really does do a very good job of putting her vision across and making you believe in it”, one parent told me.
Across her office desk, Christine is continuing in the same vein. “No child should ever feel they don’t fit in here”, she says. “If they feel as if they are somehow different or unusual, that’s GREAT! We LOVE unusual!”
We ask her about the other unique aspects of the school and she explains how their curriculum has a particular focus on STEMM-based subjects – in other words, Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Music.
“One of the important things about this curriculum is that it contains a lot of real-life based situations”, she explains. “They get to do things like building rockets, robots and other cool contraptions. It helps them become creative thinkers and problem solvers”.
We got to witness some of this for ourselves over in one of the Portakabins, where the children are learning how a small, wheeled robot vehicle is going to use a laser to follow a wavy white line taped on the classroom floor.
They crowd around to watch the robot wiggle its way along the line. We adults, who are supposed to be popping our heads in for two minutes, start to become absorbed in the lesson ourselves before we realise we really ought to move on.
This first year’s intake of students are set to be in the unusual position of being the school’s senior year for the rest of their time here.
Just as well then that they seem to be such a bright, level-headed and likeable bunch. We get to talk to several random groups of boys and girls.
“We’re building our own school – you get to see it grow!” says one girl. It’s a recurring theme. “In 20 years’ time, we’re going to be able to say, we helped make this school!” declares another boy.
The pupils really have bought into the idea that they aren’t just attending school – they are helping to shape it for themselves and the other students who follow.
In terms of discipline and culture, the school has a lot of familiar elements. There is a uniform with blazers, although the colours – grey with purple elements – do stand out from other schools in the area.
Pupils here also address teachers in the standard way, “Mr, Mrs, Miss etc” and most parents will no doubt approve of sticking to tradition in areas like this.
Although Mrs Green – as the pupils call her – is keen to stress how any signs of bad behaviour are immediately acted upon, one gets the impression that there is a good deal of self discipline from the students.
“The teachers give you more independence”, says one child. “They are all really nice and down to earth. You can talk to them”, another adds. “Yes”, says one boy. “They’re not harsh – they’re not TOO bossy!”.
“Everyone in the school is really kind and nice. There are no bullies”, says one lad, who nearly reduces Mickey to tears after telling us he was picked on at his previous school, but since starting here has grown to love going to school.
Deputy head Mat Gaynon agrees there is something special here. “We really are a big family at RFSS”, he says. “I also think that this is the first school I’ve worked at that puts the emphasis on supporting the students both academically and emotionally”.
As part of our visit, we get to have school dinner for the first time in a very long time, complete with paper plates and plastic cutlery. Although we do get special treatment as we are allowed to eat it in the headteacher’s office.
One thing we notice is that so many of the children seem to have broad horizons and more than one idea of what they might do when they are older.
“I’d like to be an international gymnast or a lawyer” a girl declares. “Policeman or game developer!” says one boy. “Footballer or doctor” adds another.
“I’ll probably join the army and get a load of money and then be a pilot”, states another lad who’s obviously been thinking ahead.
The culture here certainly seems to have rubbed off on all the pupils. There is an enthusiasm about them.
“If he’d gone to another school, my son would have cruised along”, says one mum. “But I know he can achieve far more than that”.
That, we think, is one of the things that makes this school stand out – the fact it makes pupils feel they own it.