Category Archives: Marketing and PR

When is a teacher a salesperson?

self-help graphic
From the Ten Commandments for the ethical salesperson

 

Teaching is selling

I was chatting to a headteacher at an event I had organised recently and I can’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but he said to me: “So basically you are a saleswoman”. I backtracked and said, “Well, in a way I am, but not that kind of saleswoman, not the slimy car salesman type. I see myself as just spreading the gospel of a good thing”.

Salesperson isn’t usually used as a compliment. I felt slightly shamed by what he had insinuated but our conversation took an unexpected turn for the better. He nudged me jovially, leaned in, and confessed, “before I got myself into all this” he said, gesticulating to the room heaving with long-serving, high achieving headteachers from across the country, “I was what you might call a travelling salesman – and I loved it”.

To pare down the conversation and cut to the point, we found ourselves discussing with great interest and agreement that teaching is basically selling. Here are some thoughts on the basics of really sound sales skills based on my decade as an English teacher and a decade in consultative sales in the education sector, in my roles as Director of Business Development at The Key for School Leaders, as a consultant helping two small education businesses grow and develop, and as Head of Membership at Challenge Partners.

Believe in your product

One of the key ingredients for failure in any profession is being half-hearted or lacking in belief in yourself and in what you are doing. The best teachers are really convinced that what they have to offer is really worth knowing. Those that have great passion and enthusiasm for what they teach, and genuinely want others to share in their joy, are the ones that usually at least get the attention, respect, and often loyal commitment of their students.

Likewise, I only became interested in business development out of necessity. I started at The Key as Research Team Leader, working with a team of researchers tasked with swiftly, accurately and succinctly answering questions from school leaders on anything that concerned their school. The service was a hit, schools were feeding back that this was a game changer, freeing up their time, reducing their anxiety and ensuring that they were doing what they needed to be doing. And then the financial crash happened and the DfE decided they couldn’t roll out nationally as planned. We had two choices: fold or find a way.

My absolute conviction that what we were doing could change the way school leaders worked led me to take on the role of business development and start to spread the gospel. My enthusiasm was boundless. We went from a few hundred schools that received the service for free to 60,000 school leaders with paid membership across the country over the course of the next 5 years.

Know your market and be an expert

Belief isn’t enough of course. You have to know who you are dealing with. You have to be an expert in your subject. You have to keep refreshing your knowledge. And you have to find a way to make sure that you can communicate to your market, based on your intimate knowledge of what their needs are, where their heads are at, and how you can reach them.

I care passionately about education. I steep myself in reading, thinking, listening, connecting, and getting involved in the sector as a school governor, through events and TeachMeets and the like. I can be passionate and well-informed about a number of key issues. I am seen as someone who understands and empathises with the frontline sector folk.

A teacher who is clued up about how their subject connects with their students’ worlds and can articulate that, is onto a winner. And I’m not talking about convincing students that they really will need to use Pythagoras’ Theorum in their daily lives one day, especially if they ever have to move a sofa up a narrow staircase.  Being able to play back your peripheral knowledge to your students and being able to pitch at the right level, is essential for teachers.

In my roles to date, being clear about what schools will prioritise based on ever-changing Ofsted criteria, funding streams, times of year, demographics, local politics, or any number of factors is paramount. Working that into my discussions with my clients can help them trust me and know that I understand where they are coming from.

 Know your client group and listen carefully

Basic knowledge about your students’ lives, the things that might be pulling them this way or that, being savvy about forces such as poverty, pressures on gender expectations and your own unconscious bias can be a massive advantage when thinking about your target audience.

As teachers and as salespeople, we have a natural tendency to want to launch in with our message of enthusiastic good news. Worse still, salespeople and teachers alike often find themselves in the oppressive world of targets, box ticking and trying to get to the end point from the minute they start their day. Lest these things start to dictate unsavoury behaviours, asking questions and listening carefully is time worth taking. Greeting each child as they enter the classroom is a great way to show you are human, but actually listening to them when you ask how they are, is even better. Making connections, following up, replaying and reaching out is hard to find time for, but can actually get you further along towards your end goal than you would imagine.


Know your competitors and treat them with respect

Something I really believe in is knowing your competitors inside out. I also believe that you shouldn’t politely avoid them but should rather make efforts to connect, be in the same space and interact comfortably. Moreover, I believe that you can never get anywhere or earn the respect of others through dissing your opposition or competition.

If you know your competitors, what they do well, where you are similar and where you differ, it is possible to articulate this in a respectful and engaging way.

Kids always try it on and will compare you with other teachers. How many times have you heard them say words to the effect of “Miss never gives us homework like you do! They are much nicer than you”? Or perhaps they complain about another teacher saying you are much nicer because of x, y or z reason. What do you say in response? Can you say something that shows that you actually know what your colleague is trying achieve and what is important to them rather than skirting around the issues or god forbid agreeing that they are a moron compared with you?

Or what about those students that are more interested in other things rather than in what you think is important? How can you be inquisitive, give respect to things that matter to your students rather than defaulting to the generation-gap trap of poo-pooing their passions?

When I worked at The Key, we didn’t really have any genuine competitors until one set themselves up to aggressively mimic what we did and deliberately target our members by offering to undercut us by 50%. Legend goes that their CEO was so determined to bring us down that he used to spit on the floor every time he had to mention our name. I made it my business to always go over and say a friendly hello to their sales team at their conference stands and congratulate them on their latest small landgrab. If asked about them, it was easy for me to set out the differences around quality, methodology, capacity and so on without ever saying a disrespectful word about them.

Recently as part of my work with Challenge Partners, I was invited to a seminar of organisations that offer peer review. Instead of the usual circus of pitches behind closed doors, each organisation was asked to speak about their model in a roomful of heads and in front of their perceived ‘competitors’ for business. What was delightful was the chance to hear more about these different models and to see the virtues and differences between them. Everyone was so passionate about their belief in peer review as a way to create meaningful and impactful collaboration, it was fascinating!

Solve problems, remove barriers

Consultative sales is really all about this. Putting together the points I made earlier, the ‘sales pitch’ really isn’t one at all. It is a discussion, which starts with you listening, and genuinely trying to see if what you have to offer will work for the other person. You can only know this by listening, knowing the market, understanding needs and so on. What are the simple things you can do to remove barriers? Can you move on the price, or perhaps add value without shifting on price? Are there economies of scale or a trial before there’s a commitment in full?

Students also need this level of barrier removal. You can’t know what these barriers are without listening, understanding, thinking creatively.


Have clear expectations for timelines and next steps

Some of the best teachers fall down on not being clear on what they want, when they want it by, in what format, how often, and for what purpose. It doesn’t take much to set these out and clarity can make for much better engagement and achievement in the long run. It’s not enough to just say it once either. It needs to be communicated in several ways at different intervals.

Same goes for sales. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a prospective new member of your organisation without having properly set out the timelines and next steps of your discussion or negotiation.  If you get this wrong, excitement can lead swiftly to disappointment on all sides.


Be trustworthy

This is a big one for me. Having been brought up by basically unreliable and unpredictable adults, I have a special wariness of people who are flaky, who over-promise and under-deliver. I especially can’t abide by professionals or personal acquaintances who say they were swamped and that’s why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. It seems to be a big feature of the education sector that people will just not be there when they have asked to schedule a call with you, or are half an hour late when they have asked you to come and meet them. As well as setting out next steps clearly, I always make sure I am true to my word. If I say I can move on price, I will. If I say I will call you at 2pm on Tuesday, I will.
Children need to be able to trust adults. They need to know that you will do what you said you would do. They need to know that if you set them homework, you can be trusted to take it in and mark it. They need to know that you will behave in a way that earns their trust and they also need to know you will be trusting of them.


Be warm and friendly but keep clear boundaries and don’t be a walkover

When I started teaching, I was told that I should start like a closed fist and only unfurl gradually and on my own terms. “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” is what is said in this country, I believe. We often mistake being warm and friendly with a lack of boundaries. It is possible, desirable, essential even, to be warm and friendly to the people that we want to trust us, respect us and learn from us.

The same goes with sales. Warmth that is genuine and being friendly even if your service is ultimately rejected as not appropriate, is really important. If you have followed the steps of true consultative sales as set out here, there will be no change in your warmth and ability to be friendly, whether what you are offering is taken up or not. On the other hand, people can take the mickey and ask for a level of flexibility that just isn’t realistic. Don’t be afraid to say no because you worry you might lose the sale. Just explain why in a friendly way. You might be surprised that you don’t lose the sale after all.

While being friendly, one has to keep those clear boundaries.


Love what you do and do what you love

I have always had one rule about work. I love what I do and do what I love. If I find things to be otherwise, it’s time to move on.  I am genuinely passionate about the organisations I have worked with and feel completely at home sharing my passion, engaging others in dialogue and seeing if they might benefit from them too. There will always be targets, ideals, peaks in workload and even days that are simply crappy. But it’s important to me to work with my colleagues to build the right culture so that these things don’t become central drivers.

As a teacher, you can find that your initial passion can become swallowed up by the demands of the job. Where you can, join together with colleagues in your school to make sure the culture is one you believe in and that makes you feel happy and alive at least most of the time. Make sure that you aspire to being surrounded by staff and students that love what they do and do what they love.

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Don’t treat marketing and PR as an occasional necessary evil, be wicked at it from the get-go

 

marketing-cycle

Source: Simon Hepburn 

It was the level of marketing and PR that surrounds secondary school choices that got me interested in this area in general with regards schools. It might sound entirely bonkers to admit that a school with a seemingly poor reputation caught my attention and ended up being the one my children attend today. Doing what every parent does when they don’t know better, I asked other parents about schools in the area. One school nobody seemed to mention, but that was a stone’s throw from my home, always got the same response when I asked about it. People seemed to think it was a bit rubbish – but when pressed, no-one could say why and not one of the people who had an opinion on the school had visited it, knew anyone who went there or had even read anything about it. Me being me, I had to investigate. Since then, the school has invested time and energetic enthusiasm into their PR and marketing, and its reputation is starting to match that of the actual magic that happens every day at the school. I tell people, get your oldest in now, because all too soon, it’s going to be oversubscribed. Turns out the other local school that parents told me they just “knew” was amazing and a first choice, and whose headteacher blogs about incessantly, is about to take a reputational nose-dive since the latest Ofsted visit, as the hype might not live up to the reality.

When we talk about PR and marketing with regards schools, there seems to be a level of distrust and even disgust from many, as if this is solely the realm of the private sector, the commercial and the corporate. However, savvy schools are realising that this area is absolutely vital not only if you want to keep pupil intake high, but also if you want to have some control over the story that is being told about your school. Providing you can back up your claims with substance and it’s not all puff, when times are good, your reputation will be good – people will want to come to the school, existing students and their parents, and staff members will be well-informed about all the great things that are happening, and they will feel proud and justified by their choice to be part of the school community. When things go wrong, the proverbial dog mess hits the whirring blades of the media circus fan, this good stuff you’ve been consistently broadcasting could just be what people remember despite anyone’s best efforts to pervert the course of justice.

Good marketing covers several bases that shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the complex and challenging education landscape today. Here are some of them:

  1. Your school can be seen as the first choice school if you articulate and market what your unique selling points are and keep making sure these are firmly grounded in the experience of the school community
  2. In a landscape of increased competition, and where the new shiny ideas such as academies, free schools and now grammar schools catch parents’ eyes, building networks and partnerships with others across the sector and with local business that benefit students and staff alike, can make your school stand out too
  3. Promoting good news stories regularly and consistently can stand you in good stead when things do go wrong or the going gets tough. Ongoing reputation management leads to robust damage limitation
  4. Good reputation with the local community and across the sector can lead to excellent partnerships, some of which can support alternative revenue streams, which in turn can help the school when flat cash is at a premium. Future partnerships can also create future opportunities for your students in universities, local business and beyond
  5. A school that is clearly a great place to work and to study will draw not only parents to send their children there, but will also be attractive to teachers. If you can articulate and broadcast widely the culture, ethos, CPD opportunities, and the high-quality education to be gained there, you can recruit and retain staff as well as families wanting to send their children to the school

The importance of marketing and PR really shouldn’t be overlooked. Traditional marketing for schools has been all about profile-raising for the purpose of successful recruitment and retention of both students and staff. Marketing is about improving and maximising brand opportunities. Taking this a step further and savvy marketing can mean future-proofing your school as mentioned above, and ensuring that your school is a first choice school for the surrounding area. The ninja marketers will also be mitigating some of the pressures in these financially straitened times, and will be using marketing for resources and income-generation through building meaningful networks and partnerships that benefit the school for years to come.

Links and resources for further reading:

If you are interested in learning more, Simon Hepburn from Marketing for Schools has many resources and opinion pieces from his many years’ experience on his website here

There is a good overview written by Simon called, How does your school stand out from the crowd, in SMT Magazine here. This sets out the cycle of marketing and PR  shown above that schools should embark on and helps you think about who in your school should be building the skills and expertise and making time for such a role.

Janet Murray gives useful advice on ‘How to link up with journalists on social media without feeling like a crazy stalker’ here. Her website contains all sorts of other useful links, articles and blog posts.

The Key for school leaders and NASBM (National Association of School Business Managers) have produced these useful slides called Why marketing matters to schools and their School Business Manager Toolkit also has some information on marketing your school successfully.

 

Principles of effective networking

networking

Networking is about face to face meetings as well as online activity through Twitter, LinkedIn or other social networking tools. Here are some basic tips for online networking that can help you build your network and ensure that you are a trusted, reliable and desirable person to know online.  Skip to the end section if you would just like some tips on face to face networking.

Be genuine 

Make sure your “about” or “bio” page on Linked In, Twitter etc. effectively and genuinely communicate who you are. Have a photo of yourself that is genuinely you – resist the urge to put your best wedding photo or a younger, sun-tanned you if this isn’t how you usually look. Also avoid putting pictures of yourself with other people as this is just confusing.

Don’t hide behind an anonymous account or a fake persona. This should help you to be careful and gracious in your interactions with people. Many people instinctively don’t trust anonymous or fake accounts on Twitter.

It’s not a bad idea to occasionally (not constantly) post something of a personal nature to your social media accounts, which can help your followers to connect with you on a more personal level.

Be respectful at all times   your mum

While being genuine, if you are identifying yourself as an employee of an organisation, be aware that you will usually need to be agenda-neutral, apolitical and always respectful to protect the integrity of your employers.

Make sure all of your activities – your postings, comments, questions, pictures and videos – all reflect your professionalism and dedication to your field. Internet postings, even deleted ones, are available for ever more and can resurface at any time.

Imagine your boss is reading what you are saying, and your mum, and perhaps a child that you know. It’s okay to be passionate, to make a point or to stimulate discussion but the more cordial and measured you are, the better the response you will have.

Don’t be afraid to say something. Many people just re-tweet as a way to avoid ever thinking of anything to say or to avoid being seen to be taking a stance. Just choose your words carefully – often, asking a question with a news item you post is better than stating a point of view e.g. Could government do more to help students from deprived backgrounds? Or attribute the point of view to where it belongs e.g. School leaders are angry over cuts to LA support.

Networking is a two-way street – give first and give more            networking and generosity

Think about what you have which is interesting or useful to someone else before you consider what it is that you want from other people.

Think about how you can help another person and don’t be afraid to offer your support.

To do this, you need to learn what interests your followers and remember or keep a note of it so you can reach out appropriately. Some people organise the people they follow into ‘Lists’. But remember the people you put into your lists can see what they are categorised under so name your lists carefully!

Consider how you might best serve your followers – could regular news items be something you could supply? Are you able to create a theme so that you are considered the go-to person for something in particular? Can you make yourself a valuable source for others online?

Identify some high-profile people you would love to get to know better or would love to take an interest in your work and target them for some special interest contact.

Be dynamic, proactive and regular 

People lose interest in accounts that lie dormant for days and weeks and will unfollow accounts that don’t look like they are used much so make sure you don’t look boring to others.

If news items are your thing, think about starting each morning/week with some key updates that you think would interest others e.g. top items you have spotted in the education news.

Be proactive by posting new content, starting new discussions and contacting people within the communities you find interesting.

Seek to engage the members of your community with content that is relevant to them, by being both proactive and reactive with your activities. Be reactive by commenting on what others post or contacting people who post content of interest to you to continue the conversation.

You can add a fun regular element like Monday cats or #FF on Twitter but keep it tasteful and don’t overdo it.

Join online regular chats where you feel you would like to learn more and eventually contribute. These are organised by hashtag and often have a regular weekly slot like #UKEdChat or #UKGovChat on Sunday evenings

Take a long-term approach     daily routine

It takes time to build a following and it takes time to know who to follow. Make sure you give yourself time.

Set goals – x followers by x date – but remember quality over quantity should always be the rule.

Make time for networking – perhaps ten minutes each morning to check your feed and tweet some news items and then ten minutes in the evenings and one half hour regular chat slot a week is what you could work towards.

Keep your profile photo the same for as long as possible – that way people will recognise you more easily online and also if you meet at an event.

Network face to face 

Make sure you attend relevant conferences and events and approach people face to face using the same principles of being genuine, helpful, cordial and so on.

Make sure you let people know on your network that you are going to be at an event.

Arrange to meet up with your online contacts for a coffee and a chat or to sit next to each other at a session.

Tweet from the event, Storify it or write it up as a blog post or LinkedIn update.

Don’t focus on the big names but don’t be afraid to connect with them and let them know what you thought about their talk, article, etc. Amazing things can happen if you dare.

Introduce yourself to people at conferences and events and you will see eventually, people will introduce themselves based on your profile.

Apply the same principles at conferences and events that you would online – be genuine, respectful, think where you can help others, be dynamic and proactive. Build in time to network.

Below are some handy tips for networking at events: 

Go to events. Attend the popular and well-known ones but also challenge yourself to attend events that might not be your first choice e.g. go to an evening think tank event of an organisation you don’t know well or whose views you personally oppose, attend a more intimate situation like a TeachMeet or a debate.

Let people know you are going to be there. If you can make a shout out several times on Twitter, asking who is else is going, you can arrange to meet and chat with people directly while you are there.

Let your colleagues know you are going and see if there is anyone they think you should approach or look out for.

If you can get a guest list ahead of the event, actively contact people of interest prior to the event by email, on Twitter or via LinkedIn and say that you will be there too. Say that you would be interested in having a coffee and a chat or just let them know you will be glad to bump into them there.

Do the same with the speakers list if there are people there you would appreciate meeting with after their talk or you just want to be aware that you are there.

If you are going to the event with colleagues and people you know, split up. Don’t spend the day clustering together with people you already have a relationship with.

Build in time to actively network. Go to the coffee breaks and lunch breaks and join tables where people are that you don’t know. Don’t spend these times on your phone checking emails or catching up on work.

Look for people who could use someone to chat to and that are standing alone. Find groups of people standing around chatting and join in. Sit in the presentations next to people who you don’t know. At lunch hand the person behind you in the queue a plate, make eye contact and get chatting.

Introduce yourself to everyone you sit next to. Good conversation starters are often the simplest e.g. Have you come far today? Is anyone sitting there? Did you enjoy that session? Are you getting much from the day so far?

Ask questions of people you meet, take an interest, don’t be quick to say where you are from, who you represent, or to tell your own story before you have heard theirs. Think of some questions to ask other people to draw them out and find some connections in common.

Take business cards with you. Set yourself some goals of how many cards you would like to relieve yourself of and to whom. Don’t be shy, just say, it was nice talking to you, here’s my card.

Ask for business cards when you get chatting to people. Write on the back of them in two sentences what you chatted about and why they might be useful/interesting in future. It’s important to do this as you won’t remember later when you need to follow up.

Follow up. Once you get back home or to the office, send an email to each of the contacts you have details for and/or tweet them. Follow them on Twitter and connect with them on LinkedIn. Say it was good to meet them and perhaps send them a link to something relevant to your discussion – remember to think of ways you can help others before you ask for help from them.

Wait after a speaker has delivered their presentation and approach them to say thank you and to ask a further question of them. Give them your card and ask for theirs.

Visit trade stands. Speak to people on them, both traders and other people visiting the stands. Assess what sorts of things are being developed, traded, gaining popularity. Give them your card, take theirs. Enter competitions, you may even win a bottle of champagne or an ipod shuffle.

Ask a question to a panel – introduce yourself clearly, the name of your organisation and state your question. It doesn’t have to be a ‘clever’ one but it should be concise. You could ask something generic like “I was interested when you spoke about x, could you say a little more about that?” It’s a great way to get people to recognise you afterwards and to get your name and that of your organisation heard.

Tweet during the event. At the end, you might want to Storify your tweets to make it easier for people to follow the narrative of the day.

Choosing a secondary school: tips for parents and schools

Choose well

Living in London, we are blessed with an amazing array of schools. Theoretically, we have massive choice too – although in many areas, unless you live literally spitting distance from the school, your child will not necessarily get a place there as they are all so oversubscribed.  Many parts of the country do not have much of a choice and the ‘local’ school is really quite far away. I acknowledge this with a heavy heart and realise that because of this, my blog post may be irritating for you as it really doesn’t reflect your own experience at all. I am drawing only on my own experience here.

When we were selecting a school for our oldest a couple of years ago, it was an odd time for us. We had been living in two-bedroom rented shoe-boxes for years and had finally scraped enough money and courage/denial together to take on a mortgage and look for a place to buy. But it would have to be miles from where we were currently living, in areas we could better afford. So, having to select a school based on its proximity to our address at the time but easy enough to reach by public transport from wherever we ended up was one of the major factors in our choices. It did set me apart from my child’s classmates’ parents and it made me able to step back and see a lot from their reactions to school choice. I will outline some of this here. If I know you, you read my blog and see yourself in some of this, it may or may not be you so please don’t take offence!

Parents are extremely anxious
In fact some of them are so anxious that it is as if they have completely lost their minds. The most anxious will be positioning themselves in week 21 of their pregnancy so they are close to the ‘good schools’ and many will be visiting open days and checking out schools when their child is in Year 5. This is possibly a good idea because you feel you are ticking off some schools on your list early, but a school can change radically in the space of two years, let alone 12, so it may be a false economy.

Such is their anxiety that parents will ask each other, compare, gossip, chatter, and generally become agitated and/or defensive throughout the run up to making school choices. The people we shared a playground with were such a wonderful diverse mix from loaded bankers or TV executives with million-pound homes and yummy-mummy ladies who lunch, to unemployed young families, or key-workers living in social housing and a number of quite recent arrivals from Somalia, Turkey, Eastern Europe and other places around the globe, finding their way.  The general feeling seemed to be that this was an important choice to make and we all wanted to get it right. But the reasons for our choices need to be right for each family, their needs and particular agenda.

A tip for parents: Obviously you want to make the right decision but try not to discuss it with other parents too much. Spend time listening and learning and remember that your child will be feeling anxious too. Do your best to reduce the anxiety levels and to be upbeat. And most of all, be clear on what matters to you and don’t let another parent influence you so much that they essentially decide where your child goes to school.

A tip for schools: Many primary schools do a stunningly bad job at supporting parents at this time. Make sure you make links with local schools and provide as much information as possible for families of children in Year 6. If you haven’t heard of the Meet the Parents movement, it’s time to get involved. I have helped organise a few of these and would be glad to help you get one up and running whether you are a parent or a school teacher.

Parents tend to compare their own education to schools today
I heard a lot of parents compare their own schooling to the places that were on offer for their children. It’s easy enough to do, but a mistake in my opinion. In my case, I took a bet, took the entrance exam and ended up going to a girls’ grammar school where I was the only kid on free school meals and felt completely out of my depth. I hated every single moment there but I am not my child, it is not the 1980s and a lot of the rationale for single-sex schools – for girls especially – are completely different to the fuddy-duddy beliefs of the era I grew up in. You only have to hear someone like Vanessa Ogden from Mulberry School for Girls talk about women’s education to know how different the agenda is today. Make sure you are informed.

I taught for a period in a democratic school and the problem was similar there. Some parents who had suffered from their own overbearing parents and strict schooling would send their children to our school because this is what they would have liked for themselves. But it was often a disaster for the school and the child alike as, having had a permissive childhood lacking in boundaries, being faced with making responsible choices, having freedom and trust often left them completely unable to cope in this school environment. In many cases, a more conventional school would have better served their needs.

A tip for parents: Treat what you learn about a school as if you are a stranger from a strange land. Resist the urge to compare. Try instead to put your child’s best interests at the heart of your choice. Imagine your child there and ask your child if they could imagine themselves there. It’s not that important whether you would like to be there as the child you once were.

A tip for schools: You can’t over-emphasise what kinds of students would thrive at your school, and you would do well to set out for parents and students scenarios for the different kinds of children you serve and their different interests. Make sure there is a diverse and accurate mix of photos, case studies, stories and examples so prospective parents have a chance to ‘see’ their child at your school.

Parents usually think of their Year 6 child rather than the Year 12 child they could become
We had realised pretty quickly that walking 5 minutes to school would not be an option for us. This is because we were applying in one catchment area knowing that by the time the new school year started we were most likely going to be living in a totally different one.  There was no way around this as you can’t apply speculatively for the area you think you are going to be living in. This made it easier to realise that our small, inexperienced Year 6 child would need to get some know-how travelling on public transport and that she would not be 12 forever. Many parents limit their choices because they simply cannot imagine their child being independent, travelling on public transport or getting about without them being there too. I was amazed and delighted with how quickly our oldest took to travelling by bus, grabbing herself a snack with friends on the way home, until she is now totally confident to go anywhere so long as it features on Google Maps.

A tip for parents: You really need to let go and think about the young adult that your child will grow into during their time at school. Year 6 is a time to start letting them travel to school alone, make forays to the shops, lead the way on public transport on family outings and more. Don’t rule out a school because your child has never walked that far or taken a bus before.

A tip for schools: Make sure prospective parents know how your students get to your school, which bus routes they take, whether they cycle or walk, if there is organised transport or whether there are car pools. Reassure them that they can do it too.

Nothing is irreversible
I brought my family to England when the kids were nearly 5 and 2 and neither of them spoke English with any fluency. It was tough but it taught us all that they were able to cope. For the first 6 years, we stayed at the same primary school but moved home three times and then finally to our own home in a different area of London when the oldest went to secondary school. Because of the move, the youngest had to start Year 5 in a new primary school – it was the making of her, although she was convinced it would be awful.

They say that control freaks and perfectionists make the worst parents and if having a baby doesn’t knock any illusions of control or perfection out of you, surely the passing of the years should. But if you have somehow got to the age when you are trying to make the best decision you can about secondary schools and you’re still convinced you will get it 100% right, one thing to bear in mind is that nothing is irreversible when it comes to school choices. If the worst comes to the worst and you, the school and your child realise for whatever reasons that this wasn’t the right choice, you can always think about applying to move elsewhere.  Parents and children alike often see this as horror of horrors, disruptive, tainted with failure and negatively life-changing. I think it is really helpful to say this message loud and clear to your child from the beginning: “Sweetie, if it doesn’t work out, there are other schools that are also great. You will be fine, but if it doesn’t work out, we will think again”. In most cases people do make the right choice anyway.

A tip for parents: Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect and all-knowing. If you have done your homework, you will probably get it right, but be open and vocal about the fact that the world won’t end if it doesn’t work out. This message is also an important one where the schools you have listed are over-subscribed and you might not get your first choice. Make sure you make it known that every school on the list will be just fine and what the pros and cons are for each.

A tip for schools: If for some reason it doesn’t work out, support students and their families to move on without feeling they have failed. Children shouldn’t be made to feel they have let anyone down if they can’t make it work at your school.

Ofsted reports don’t mean a thing
Some parents only consider a school if it is rated Outstanding or Good by Ofsted. Some even spend long hours reading Ofsted reports. It can be useful to read an Ofsted report, especially the summary on where the school’s strengths are and where their areas for improvement could be. These could be things you look out for or ask questions about when you visit the school. But an Ofsted inspection is but a snapshot of a day or two in the life of a school. And that snapshot may have happened some time ago. I have visited great Outstanding schools but others where I have felt it was a tense, soulless and pressured environment and I have visited awful schools rated Requires Improvement and others that have been the most creative, aspirational, purposeful and warm places. Ofsted reports are useful as part of the picture, but mainly are unreliable as the basis for your decision.

Tips for parents: Trust your gut feeling when you visit a school. Try to get to schools that you are interested in not just for the open days and public marketing displays around choices time. Get yourself there for a Winter Fair, a school concert or other opportunity. Get to know parents of older students there. Have a look at the school website and look into the eyes of the children there.

Tips for schools: Make sure the local community has ample reason and opportunity to engage with your school. Ensure that your website is vibrant and gives an accurate reflection of the school. Talk openly about the school’s strengths and the areas that it is looking to develop

In case you are interested, these are the things that featured in my choice of secondary school in no particular order:

It can be reached easily by public transport

My partner walked in and immediately said he loved it having been previously sceptical, our child liked it and so did her younger sibling.

It is relatively small and they have a good track record with both SEND and most able children.

They are stubbornly enthusiastic about having a rich music and arts curriculum despite the squeeze on finances and time schools are experiencing for these subjects.

It felt right – I called during term-time and said I would like to visit. I went with my child and they gave us an hour and a half of their time. It was a normal school day. They didn’t have to do that. We also visited during an open day – the students were lovely and I grilled them with ‘trick questions’ like: “I bet the fact that there are more boys than girls means there’s a lot of mucking about in lessons, eh?” and “Which teachers shout the most?” They gave great answers and ones I wanted to hear.

The senior leadership team is well-liked and had been there for several years but not too many. A new headteacher takes a while to get going and one that has been there forever may leave. I was keen for at least a couple of years of stability and a strong senior team should the head move on.

The headteacher is a 6ft black woman and many of the staff members were BAME. Call me overly-political but in an inner-London school, I would like my children to be educated alongside and by the very people that they live amongst. This to me felt right.

The school talked in terms of achievements, aspirations and experiences they wanted the students to gain during their time there, but they also used words like love, passion, nurture and fun.

The school is not over-subscribed and has a reputation that is 10 years out of date, despite their best efforts to change this. I asked them outright, “why when I ask about this school, people say they don’t think it’s very good, and yet your Value Added is amazing, you have great results, a new build and a good Ofsted?”  They were honest and not at all defensive. They invited me to help change that, and I am.

 

 

 

If you are serious you have to go hunting

Binoculars

The Festival of Education list of speakers is out

The  initial list of speakers proposed for the Festival of Education 2016 is out. There are some great names there and I’m really excited to be going again this year, as I have every year since it started. As I scrolled down the faces, it really stood out how many of them were white and male (not to mention that five of them are called Andrew/Andy!) I pointed out this white and male bias on Twitter and was met with the inevitable flurry of likes and retweets and a couple of push backs.

The main thrust of the small amount of resistance I received to my pointing out that there is an imbalance seemed to be that this was a self-selecting group. To become a speaker there relied in part on people putting themselves forward. 300 people did, and none of them were turned away. I think I understood my Twitter colleagues as saying that if people don’t put themselves forward that aren’t predominantly white and male, then they are just making the balance the way it is. It was hard to explain myself in little 140 character snippets so I want to set out what I feel needs to be said here.

Who should speak?

As a teacher in the classroom and later in my professional life as a leader running meetings, I was always aware that everyone in a group should have a voice. It’s easy to get this wrong and through good intentions to crush those that are naturally outspoken and enthusiastic and swoop down and ask someone what they think while they quietly die inside from having all eyes on them. But we do have a responsibility to make sure every voice is heard and to find a way that works for everyone to have those voices included in the debate.

These days I often take part in meetings and discussions in my day to day life. I know that I have no problem speaking up most of the time. In fact, I know that I have a duty to be very attentive to how much of the group’s time is taken up by my own voice. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a management meeting recently where we discussed exactly this and decided how we would ensure that everyone has space, time and the awareness of their colleagues to help get this balance right so we can make good decisions together. It can make people who are outspoken feel just as anxious as those who are not, if the balance isn’t right. No-one wants to feel they are contributing too much or too little. The best environments are where everyone takes equal responsibility to get the balance right and it is recognised that there are certain inbuilt imbalances that need to be watched for carefully and which can change depending on the issue at hand. If we want to get this right, we have to hunt out these imbalances and actively address them. If you are serious, you will whether that’s in a small meeting or you are scanning the proposed list of speakers for a major event.

The problem with self-selection

Self-selection on the face of it seems like a wonderfully fair and open way to organise an event. It clearly invites people who think they have something of worth to say, to have a platform to say it. You might ask what the problem is. You are guaranteed to get some really enthusiastic, responsible people coming forward who will consider carefully what they are going to say, how and why – lest they make fools of themselves in front of everyone who is anyone in education – because everyone who is anyone tends to rock up to the Festival of Education. (If you haven’t been, imagine an extremely civilised education equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival – without the mud, the terrifying toilets, the noise, the drugs etc).

To my mind, while this self-selection is a good way to get some initial ideas for willing presenters, if it was the only way of selecting speakers, it would be lazy and the same as standing in front of a class and saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. I must point out that because this shout out for speakers by the Festival of Education was done on Twitter, it is like standing in the furthest corner of the classroom whispering or texting a couple of people saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. Most educationalists are not on Twitter. Hard as it is to comprehend this fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. And many educationalists that are on Twitter and who blog have ample platform to say what they think.

I know this isn’t the only way that the Festival of Education organisers are looking for speakers, so this is not an attack or an accusation. So again, if you are serious, you need to go hunting using a wider method than shouting out on social media.

Event organisation and programme management is a serious business

I have quite a bit of experience of event organisation. This is from all angles as a delegate, an exhibitor/sponsor and as an organiser thinking through balanced programmes for events. It’s not easy. You need to do a lot of research and talking to people to find the right speakers and to get the right balance that reflects the sector you are operating in and the issues you know for a fact need to be covered. You need to include known names and people that will pull in an audience in the first place or no one will come, but you also have a unique opportunity to bring in some people that are perhaps lesser-known and have much to say that could be of benefit to the community you know will be present at your event. And you will need to work hard to find these people, to describe what they are going to say and why others need to hear it.

It can be even more difficult to get speakers that are actually good at speaking publicly. Some people have great experience and probably much to say, but they aren’t great at speaking. And others can be very entertaining or very well known, but don’t really have anything new, interesting or relevant to say any more. There were some grumbles last year at the Festival of Education that one extremely well-known education speaker was flown in at vast expense and was frankly a bit ‘meh’.

I went to two events on social mobility recently – one had a panel of young white, entrepreneurial, middle class, mainly men who spoke of their experience of trying to create a more socially mobile environment for students through the various charities and social enterprises they had set up. They were really enthusiastic, obviously wanted to make a change for the better and were consciously able to use their place of privilege in society to do so. But I felt a bit like they had a very them-and-us view of the world and that they ticked off a great list of boxes, almost saying, “it’s okay guys, we’ve got this”. I wanted more enquiry, more challenge. The other event I attended had a panel that was well-balanced with regards age, social class, race, experience, and included people from education, business, social care and other sectors. It also included people young and older people who felt they had been able to be socially mobile and those that felt they had not. I felt truly stimulated and that I had learned a lot from the second panel. My eyes were opened and I was left feeling uplifted but also thinking about some really uncomfortable truths about my own society and my place in it in relation to others. That, for me, is a good balanced panel and a good experience.

After finding this balance, a good event organiser must almost choreograph the dance of themes, issues, ideas, take-aways and calls for action that will take place on the stage in front of participants. Furthermore, a good event often needs to be both accessible to anyone with a passing interest and simultaneously stimulating to people who have been living and breathing the issues for years. If you are serious, you need then to both go hunting and to choreograph what you bring into the mix.

Social responsibility and amazing opportunity

There are so many situations where we have a social responsibility to be self-aware and aware of the context within which we are operating. I mentioned it earlier, in some situations I speak loudly and often. Therefore, I need to be aware of those that don’t and listen out for them. I need to know when I can speak up for others and I need to know when to shut up. As a parent governor for example, I had to perform the excruciatingly difficult balancing act of being a representative from the parent body but not a representative of the parent body. I had to look out for the interests of all children and that included my children but my frame of reference should never be through my children but rather all children belonging to the school community.

I often tie myself in knots with these kinds of levels of awareness. I feel the same awareness about my class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, my age and more. I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of the time, I feel that we are all trampling about stepping on each other just by virtue of our attempts to not do precisely that. And so I feel that the organisers of the Festival of Education are going to face the same difficult task of making way for the many voices, issues, interests and debates that need to be heard. And they have a social responsibility and an amazing opportunity to make this as balanced, fair, interesting, challenging and inclusive as possible. To the organisers I say, you made a good start with the initial self-selection but I know you are serious, so happy hunting!