School Reform: Branding for Extra Credit

Designer Marksteen Adamson looked at London's Fortismere School and saw a scattered institution that needed a lesson in unity

When designer Marksteen Adamson first visited Fortismere School in Haringey, London, he all but got lost. "It was a complete mess," he says. "I couldn't find reception and I didn't know if I was in the right building. Like many state schools in the UK, it had been built and grown over time. There were units scattered across the site, and the North and South sides had their own fiefdom mentality."

"Without a doubt, the school needed a single identity to bring all the different parts together." And that is why Adamson, then working for Interbrand as a creative director, was visiting. Fortismere had decided to participate in a project called Joined Up Design for Schools. The initiative was created in 2000 by the Sorrell Foundation in the UK, whose mission it is to foster creativity in the nation's youth, and explores how "good design can improve the quality of life in schools." Pupils set the brief (which could range from redesigning the canteen to reputation management) and worked with professional designers to meet their objectives.

Karen Allaway, assistant head at Fortismere, says that Joined Up Design for Schools supplied them with all the basics for its new identity: a color scheme, the Fortismere "mark," a catch phrase (everything at Fortismere is now "on the hill"), and lots of good ideas on how to implement the brand throughout the school. That was five years ago -- and the rollout is still going on.

"I really wanted to kick-start the brand with a big splash, but there was no money," says Allaway. "I wanted to change the stationery, but I had to wait. It had to be a gradual thing." Indeed, while the signage has been up five years, the school has only just been repainted in the pale blue and green colors of its identity.

But now the brand is everywhere. School letters and publications, sports clothing, and ID badges are easily identifiable. Allaway's latest plans are to explore, always with the pupils, the more social side of the brand. "We are looking at how to brand areas for reflection and relaxation where people can eat and chat," she says.

While Fortismere is several years into its new identity, other schools are beginning to follow suit, not least because of the ongoing transition of most schools in the UK toward "specialist" schools. Set up by the British government, the specialist program encourages secondary schools to specialize with a view to boosting achievement.

For instance, Blakeston School in Middlesborough became a community sports school in September 2004. "When we found out about the decision in February, we employed a PR company," says Karen Pritchard, director of specialism at the school. "The company helped us to get the information about us out into the press. They put together flyers to parents, primary schools and in public places like doctors' [offices] and libraries. We also conducted surveys to see what people thought about changing the school colors, the uniform and having a new name and logo. Everything was going to be brand new."

All this change helped to show how the school was progressing, and to get people talking. But it has changed the mindset of staff, pupils and people in the surrounding local area too. According to Pritchard, many pupils say that the school has changed for the better. Community use of the school's sports facilities has gone from 35 percent of capacity to 80 percent.

According to Linda Doyle, head of joint initiatives at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the very process of applying for specialist status forces schools to think more creatively about their identity and how it is portrayed. "Within the specialism movement there is the concept of celebrating doing things well. Schools are encouraged to do more outgoing projects and celebrating their success. They have to communicate a lot when they are raising the required £50,000 to apply for specialist status (US$87K), and once they are into it, they tend to continue to do it afterwards.

"Specialist status makes schools think about their image," Doyle continues. "Before they only tended to think of parents, now they have to think more widely and publicize more. It is not difficult to get into the local press, but before, most schools would not have thought of it."

Branding is not a word education people are using, Doyle concedes, "but they might talk about marketing, image or raising a school's profile in the community."

There's little doubt that Allaway and Pritchard believe their schools have benefited from a stronger, consistent identity. Graham Sturzaker, design director at Elmwood Design, would agree. He worked with Hookergate Comprehensive School outside Newcastle, also on a Joined Up Design project. "The school had a reputation problem in the area that was holding it back from attracting students," he explains. "There was a stigma attached. Parents would keep their children away from kids from Hookergate and pupils would be thrown out of shops. "Our work with the pupils in the school revealed its strengths and helped to build a new identity around the idea of self expression," says Sturzaker. "We designed a new logo and ran a campaign focusing on the school's success stories to raise its profile. The project brought up so many positives about the school. It had the effect of pulling staff and students together. It raised morale far more than would a new badge alone."

But Sturzaker is not sure how far most schools will be able to go in building brands. "There are lots of new schools being built and more emphasis is given to architectural design. Whether branding is given the same importance is questionable. It comes down to money and budgets. Schools find it hard to justify spending money on marketing."

Marksteen Adamson says that is where people like him have to come in. "State schools just do not have the resources to do it. The message must go out to design and ad agencies to go out and help schools. Schools just don't have the time and resources. It is time for philanthropy. Agencies need to think differently about the future of our children. We all earn enough, we have enough to live, and we have enough to give."

Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

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