November 2012


  • Grade Expectations
    Comparable outcomes were intended to guarantee fairness for students from one year to the next. Now, in light of this year's GCSE English debacle, they appear to have become a way of fixing 'grade inflation'. Sue Kirkham looks at where and why the policy went awry. More
  • A move to the middle
    Concerned about flatlining results, Abbeyfield School in Wiltshire has switched to a curriculum for 11-14 year-olds built around 'big ideas', encouraging students to explore the links between subjects – and to their own lives. David Nicholson explains the thinking. More
  • Social network
    Is participation in social media a time-wasting distraction or a not-tobe- missed opportunity to engage with parents and communities? Susie Kearley reports. More
  • Growing potential
    Schools spend billions employing teaching assistants (TAs) with little evidence that they make a difference to attainment. Sue Tate and Ben O’Toole explore the challenges schools face in realising the potential of their support staff. More
  • All systems Gove...
    Following the government reshuffle, Daniel Cremin looks at some of the key personnel changes and their potential policy implications and explores whether the return of David Laws will put the brakes on Michael Gove's radicalism. More
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Is participation in social media a time-wasting distraction or a not-tobe- missed opportunity to engage with parents and communities? Susie Kearley reports.

Social network

Social media has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Initially, sites like Facebook and more recently Twitter were viewed as tools for personal communication but they – and others, such as YouTube, Google and Flickr – were quickly adopted as powerful channels for marketing and publicity by businesses and organisations keen to get their message out to the widest possible audience.

For schools and colleges, the explosion of social media use on smartphones, combined with its widening appeal across all age groups, presents an unprecedented opportunity to engage with their audience. The direct and interactive nature of social media makes it both cost-effective and powerful, providing the opportunity to communicate with parents, the wider community, and to some extent children and young people, sharing school/college successes and showcasing facilities.

True, engaging with social media can be time-consuming and can attract unwanted attention or even public criticism. Even so, for many, it is no longer a nice-to-have element of their promotional mix but an essential part of it.

"Social media presents us with a never before seen opportunity to engage with our audiences,” says Mark Blayney Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. “The reality is that the conversation is being had anyway and at the very least schools should be looking to be a quiet observer rather than avoiding it altogether. Invest in a little training for the right people and that will help you manage the risks while taking advantage of the benefits that social media can bring."

Immediacy is an advantage

ARK Schools is a charity and an academy operator that runs 11 academies including Burlington Danes, in west London. The school joined Twitter just over a year ago and has attracted more than 400 followers so far.

"We use our Twitter account mostly to promote school success stories, such as sporting events and concerts," says Stephen Adcock, assistant principal, who runs the school’s Twitter feed.

"One big advantage of Twitter is its immediacy. This year England footballer Daniel Sturridge popped into the school at lunchtime, pretty much unexpected. We tweeted a couple of pictures and the local newspaper took up the story the same day."

Twitter is also popular among students who seem “more eager to read our tweets than our newsletters or letters," he says.

"A few months ago, I was a judge in the school talent show. I didn't have much insight to offer each act so I invited the audience to tweet me their thoughts. Within seconds I had loads of tweets from students in the audience. It was the first time the school had encouraged the use of mobile phones and we had a lot of new followers after that – mostly students – whereas many of our early followers were educational bloggers.

"I don't think that Twitter works with more than one person running the same account," he adds. "It's important to know what you’ve already tweeted and if you've had any dialogue with someone on Twitter they probably expect to be talking to the same person each time. I’ve established my own protocol so I never follow students back and I use first names only when mentioning students."

Stephen says he hasn't encountered much negativity but has been able to correct a few errors, such as providing the statistics on how many of the school's students get the English Baccalaureate. Nor does he find it a burden time-wise.

"I find Twitter incredibly simple to manage – it's as time-consuming as you want it to be, but I enjoy doing it so I don't see it as a chore. Our followers include students, parents, prospective parents, our teachers and the wider community. A lot of new staff also follow us on Twitter before they start working with us."

A recruitment tool

ARK Schools has both HR and communications teams working on its social media activities.

Director of Communications Lesley Smith says "Twitter fulfils three functions: promoting our schools' activities and achievements, advertising career opportunities and promoting ARK's views. It helps us fill staff vacancies because our ads are often re-tweeted by other schools and local community bloggers."

They use it to promote the successes of ARK Schools and reinforce their participation in the local community. For example, many pupils took part in BBC School Report when the Olympic torch passed their schools. Their reports were tweeted and went viral. "We get very little negative feedback and, when we do, we’re grateful that other people sometimes intervene on our behalf," Lesley adds. "Occasionally there is organised harassment by anti-academy campaigners – we mostly ignore it but genuine enquiries are responded to.

"The social media presence is notdifficult to sustain or time-consuming. It’s very useful for our schools to cement community relationships but it’s not a replacement for direct contact."

Publicising successes

Stephi Baker, communications manager at Plymouth College, an independent school in Devon, manages their Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts. This year has been a high profile one for the school whose pupils gave outstanding performances at the London Olympics: Ruta Meilutyte, 15, won gold in the 100m breaststroke while 18 year-old Tom Daley famously took bronze in the 10m platform diving event.

Stephi says: "We started using Twitter earlier this year and when Ruta won gold, it exploded for us, and it was hard to keep up with all the posts. Before she won we had about 45 followers and it rose to about 700 afterwards, then when Tom won bronze that number increased again. We now have nearly 1,500 followers and it’s still rising."

Stephi has alerts on her phone and her PC so is constantly tracking what is being posted. "I post most days and when there’s something that Plymouth College is heavily involved in, like the town’s Olympic home-coming parade, I will tweet and re-tweet multiple times in a day."

One of the major benefits of social media is the power to communicate with people that more traditional forms of marketing don’t reach, she says. "It is definitely an effective way of raising the school profile more widely because of its 'sharing' capacity. For example, when Tom Daley tweeted about getting an A in his Spanish A level this summer, my immediate reply to him was not only seen by many of his followers but was also picked up and featured in a number of national and international media reports."

  • Susie Kearley is a marketing and education writer

Some good practice tips for successful social media

  • Help people find your social media sites by putting links on your website, on the foot of emails and on other communications.
  • Take time to nurture relationships, provide content that your audiences value and don’t overtly market yourself.
  • Listen to what your audience is saying. Listening can help prevent disasters; you may resolve a problem from a disgruntled parent before they go to the media, for example.
  • You can use your audience as a focus group to provide feedback on ideas. If a proposal is met with disapproval, you might decide not to proceed after all.
  • People like to share laughter and anguish. Give them laughter and try to keep anguish to a minimum by addressing their concerns quickly.
  • Develop a social media strategy – know your audience, set goals, promote events, post often, and don’t leave the site to run itself.