Social media and our new school

Social media proved to be as important as building contractors in creating a new secondary in north-west London, headteacher Chris Woolf tells Liam Donnison.

When Chris Woolf was appointed founding headteacher of Pinner High School in January 2016 he found himself with a major challenge: how to build a school community from the ground up.

As well as finding himself deep in the intricacies and technicalities of setting up the new school in north-west London, Mr Woolf was keen to build awareness of the opening later that year so that he could find and recruit staff and encourage parents to enrol their children.

Over the following months, Mr Woolf wrote a blog about his experiences of setting up a new school, building a legion of readers who enjoyed his musings on everything from navigating planning regulations on fencing heights to choosing toilet flushing mechanisms and working with drainage contractors.

The school welcomed its first year 7 students in September 2016 and now has three year groups totalling 498 children, with a total of 64 members of staff.

“The challenge when you start a new school is to create the community that many established schools already have – they have the parents, teachers and students who know what the school is. We were starting from a blank page,” he explained.

“Creating that community through social media was something that worked really well. Social media has played a huge part in the setting up of the school. It’s encouraged parents to send their children to us and we’ve recruited a lot of our staff through social media.”

So, what advice would Mr Woolf share with school leaders keen on making social media work as a positive tool for building a school community?

Start a blog

“I have no real expertise in social media but lots of people read my blog. It’s a free way of promoting your school and can be a way of sharing good news about the school. The teaching profession doesn’t always get good press and schools that can create their own good news are very much at an advantage.” 

Mr Woolf’s blog has become the core communication channel for the school: “Lots of schools do newsletters but I don’t think this is appropriate for the 21st century,” he said. “You can get a blog straight on your smartphone, it doesn’t get lost in your child’s bag and parents can read it when they want.

“Lots of families like to share it wherever they are – they share a link to the blog from Facebook with grandparents, for example. It helps to create a sense of extended community that families really like. I now email my blog to parents at the end of each week and it is also on the school website. Topics include celebrating sports results, theatre productions and auditions – the things that families want to know about their school.”

Choose your channels carefully

“I distribute the blog through Facebook and Twitter and I’ve started sharing it on Instagram,” Mr Woolf explained. “Facebook is for parents and Twitter is parents, businesses and collaborators. We found a theatre group and team-building provider through Twitter, for example. 

“Instagram is more for sharing messages with the students. LinkedIn is an emerging channel for us – it tends to focus on businesses looking for collaboration, but together all of them are useful ways of promoting what’s going on within a school in a positive way. 

“We’re also looking at YouTube and Facebook Live – new interviewees especially like using video as a way of getting up-to-speed about our school.” 

Mr Woolf advises leaders to choose the times they publish on social media in order to maximise its effectiveness: “The best time to post on social media for education is 4 pm to 6 pm for Facebook and Twitter, evenings for LinkedIn and at the beginning or the end of the week for a blog. The key here is to make sure that it goes out at the same time each week – it needs to be consistent.”

Be aware of the risks

Parental permissions are needed in order to feature students on social media posts and schools should be mindful of the safeguarding issues around naming students in online images, Mr Woolf warned. 

If there are complaints or negative comments on social media channels Mr Woolf suggests trying to resolve any issues directly with the complainant rather than addressing them online. It is also best to restrict control of social media account passwords to one person.

Rethink advertising

Mr Woolf has used social media channels to cut recruitment advertising costs: “Advertising in mainstream media is expensive. In my previous schools, I often had to advertise several times to get a good maths teacher. Now we hold recruitment events and advertise those through social media and we’ve managed to recruit several colleagues.

“The number of applications was massively high in the first year – we had 300 applications for the first 10 posts.”

Social media has also boosted the school budget in other ways. One of Mr Woolf’s first blog posts appealed for a sports kit sponsor and within days the post had been read 2,000 times and he had secured funding of £1,000.

Make it a force for good

It is important for students to see the school embrace social media and use it responsibly: “There’s lots of bad news about social media, especially around young people misusing it so it’s really important that we model the safe use of social media.”

Mr Woolf says that social media also helps to give students a sense of pride in the school: “It is helping to build their self-esteem and they like the idea that people think they go to a good school.”

He doesn’t ignore more traditional communication channels such as the local press as these remain important. “I’d written an article for a local paper and posted a link on our Facebook page that led to a lot more interest in the school. I make sure that I do this pretty regularly to maintain a wider awareness in our school,” he added.

Liam Donnison is director of Best Practice Network, a provider of professional development and support for education professionals. Working in partnership with Outstanding Leaders Partnership, Best Practice Network has developed four National Professional Qualifications for school leaders. Visit www.outstandingleaders.org and www.bestpracticenet.co.uk for more information on our leadership programmes.