It's the ultimate 'elevator pitch' – the knock-out round determining the wheat from the chaff – that heart-in-mouth moment as the school administrator rifles through the post, sifting ruthlessly through the endless bumph to get to the really important stuff.
Carefully crafted flyers, brochures, newsletters and resources lie strewn across the cutting-room floor, destined for the bin – and with them opportunities missed, free events not attended, free CPD, creative workshops and partnerships never experienced… And for those lucky enough to make it 'through the first round', it's off to the pigeon hole with them to await the tea-break challenge, which could well see them similarly strewn bin-wards… (but did it reach the right pigeon hole?)
E-communications has the potential to cut through, and is much more cost effective for organisations (postage to over 3,000 London schools can be expensive). These succinct wrap-ups of information with links directly through to useful information, online booking forms and free resources are much more direct, and so easy to forward on and share. Schools sign up to receive these, but then come the undeliverables and the bouncebacks thanks to our friend the 'firewall' – and it would be interesting to know how often emails to the admin office get forwarded on to the appropriate teacher who might just be interested, before they reach for 'delete'.
Then there's social media – huge potential here, but how many teachers are out there effectively using it to connect up to opportunities and resources, profiling their work, building networks and entering into useful discussions with organisations keen to support their work? Are schools up to speed with how to use these platforms? Is the cultural sector?
Now, we understand that schools are extremely busy places. Perhaps there's an over-saturation of opportunities to choose from, or maybe teachers just don't have the time or inclination to engage in these times of huge change in school structures, governance and shifting curriculum, or maybe the cultural sector just isn't pushing the right buttons in their communications?
But for every 'not interested' there's a missed opportunity - how do we get through this early elimination round to deliver our messages and opportunities to the right people - those who are interested and can connect with what we're trying to do, and want to make something happen for their school?
From talking to schools, we know that they cite a 'lack of information about the available opportunities' as a real barrier in engaging with cultural opportunities (our NFER research, 2012). On the flip-side, cultural organisations say they struggle to get their opportunities seen by the right person in the school, and their communications to stand out enough to make it past the front-desk. So there's an obvious gap between schools who want and need information, and the organisations desperately trying to reach them. What's going wrong?
We often hear from organisations, that their education and young people's programmes are rarely seen as core to the marketing activity of their organisation, so education teams are left to fend for themselves, which can make things even more challenging. Do organisations need to build their work with schools and young people more effectively into their marketing priorities, or do we need to support learning teams in building their expertise in comms? Maybe schools also need support in how they can connect more proactively through the communication channels available to them. A meeting half-way? Clearly this will only work for those schools proactive enough to want to engage, learn and move forward.
I believe there's something powerful in the potential of social media, and I think schools are increasingly using these channels (despite the firewalls and IT restrictions often imposed on them), and some cultural organisations are using social media very effectively - but there's still a way to go in the sector in terms of understanding the potential, and embracing what should be a two-way 'listening' conversation.
At AND, we are not interested in plugging our name for the sake of it, and we are not currently in the business of 'selling' products to schools, we're trying to generate a step-change in the way young Londoners benefit from and access the best of arts and culture, and schools are essential partners in achieving this. We are talking and planning with other partners from across the creative and cultural spectrum to work out how we can do this – but we need schools in the conversation too.
So, a plea to our friends in London schools, please spill the beans… what is the best way for organisations to communicate with you?
- How can we circumnavigate the cutting-room floor?
- What channels are most effective?
- What would encourage you to sign up to an e-bulletin?
- What would make you share information and recommend to others?
- What publications do you read?
- What websites do you rely on, or go to for information?
- What social media platforms do you use most effectively?
- What networks are you a part of?
Similarly, if any creative / cultural organisations have insights into fail-safe approaches to reaching London schools, we'd love to hear about them.
In the meantime, we'll just keep plugging away…
Follow me on Twitter - @SteveJWoodward
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