Councils run crisis communications classes for schools as trusts up their PR focus

Councils are running classes for school managers on how to deal with the media in a crisis, while academy trusts are calling in consultants for up to £450 a day, a Schools Week investigation into the cost of public relations has revealed.

The recent government investigation into the Perry Beeches academy trust (Former Perry superhead Liam Nolan pictured) in Birmingham revealed how the chain had employed a communications team to handle media operations for £450 a day.

The trust called in professionals following revelations of poor financial mismanagement.

The findings give an insight into how academies are dealing with intensified media and public interest. Information shared with Schools Week by the country’s largest trusts reveals how PR has become an integral part of their operation.

Ormiston spends nearly £2,000 a year per academy on handling media enquiries, including a round-the-clock crisis helpline, so that staff can stay focused on educating pupils.

Ark has spent about £50,000 in the past two years, mostly on media training for new and existing principals. The trust, which runs 35 schools, has an in-house team that supports schools, including a part-time PR manager, but is also training its school leaders.

A spokesperson said: “Public relations is an important part of our work, to ensure we are engaging with, and communicating with the communities that we serve, and responding promptly to queries from the media.”

REAch2, which runs 55 academies and is opening 22 new free schools, spent £92,000 on communications last year

Some trusts use agencies to run their communications. For example, the Academies Enterprise Trust is known to use the Champollion agency, which specialises in crisis management.

Meanwhile local authority maintained schools continue to regularly make use of council press offices.

Slough borough council, for example, has a crisis communications agreement with schools – which is also open to academies. Schools pay up to £2 per pupil per year and it works like an insurance policy, with the council on-hand 24-hours a day to deal with the media.

Slough has also started running free training sessions for schools spokespeople.

Executive training courses run by the Ambition School Leadership charity are training trust chief executives how to “manage the media”, alongside other skills in brand management, stakeholder engagement and digital communications.

REAch2, which runs 55 academies and is opening 22 new free schools, spent £92,000 on communications last year, including marketing and stakeholder engagement.

Cathie Paine, deputy chief executive said the communications team “plays an important role in communicating the benefits to schools of being part of a high-performing academy trust”.

The government investigation into Perry Beeches concluded it was “reasonable for the trust to use public resources to purchase professional services support where required”.

School leaders in the trust said they did not “have the time and expertise” to deal with media requests, and outsourcing PR meant they could focus on pupils. The firm was used for four days a month.

However, the government was critical there was “no evidence of a formal procurement process”.

Other trusts have also fallen foul over their PR spend. The government accused Durand of breaching the academies financial handbook when it paid more than £240,000 to PR and political lobbying firm PLMR.

But Sir Greg Martin, Durand’s chair of governors, told Schools Week the trust did not break rules, adding that the Education Funding Agency had confirmed the work was done at cost.

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