Last year the proposed Beccles Free school ran an advertisement which among other claims used the phrase 'this outstanding school' (see a copy of the ad here). Local campaigner James Hargrave complained to the Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) and following a letter the school dropped the word 'outstanding'. That wasn't the end though - campaigners in Lancashire went further and have just achieved an adjudication against the Maharishi School Trust, which clearly states:
'In the context of an ad for an education provider, the claim "outstanding academic results" was likely to be interpreted as referring to a current Ofsted rating'
The use of the ASA doesn't stop there. Campaigners against Free Schools have challenged other advertising by the Seckford Foundations Free School Trust (the sponsor of the Beccles Free School). This ASA judgement was made against the Seckford Trust's proposed Ixworth Free School and this one against the Beccles Free School itself.
What are the lessons for schools marketers?
- Accept that local protesters (and perhaps other schools) will use the tools available to them to oppose you. The use of the ASA is a common protest tactic, not least because it is guaranteed to result in negative media coverage.
- Make advertising visionary - focused on the future. New schools do have a major challenge as they have no existing students or teachers to show off, but in this case marketing needs to be based on your own clear vision and specific actions to achieve the vision - rather than relying on hyperbole and trying to guess what local parents might want to see in an advert. I've suggested before looking at the West London Free School for tips.
- Seek advice if you're unsure about your adverts. The ASA itself is a good place to start.
- Don't waste time arguing with regulatory bodies. One of my personal worst moments in marketing was when one of the branches of the recruitment agency I was working for started running its own version of the National Lottery (which is of course illegal) and I took the call from the relevant regulator. They were polite though and accepted an apology and an immediate end to the 'competition'.