The impact of the media on education

The impact of the media on education

Presentation by Elizabeth Buie, news editor, TES Scotland, to the annual conference of School Leaders Scotland.

My first task is to define what I mean by the media in this context. I am not going to be talking about phone cameras, websites like Ratemyteacher or Friends Reunited. You probably know far better than me about the impact of texting on written English or the tendency for pupils to Google instead of use library research skills. And reading the SQA external assessors’ reports we are reminded that too many pupils are using Wikipedia for their research rather than conventional sources.

I am here to talk about the news media, in particular newspapers, the area in which I’ve worked.

The first question to address is: does the media have an impact on education? Yes, insofar as the media has an impact on any area of policy. Perhaps we should be asking, does the media have an impact on politicians?

There are some examples where media pressure has had a positive result. Glasgow City Council did a U-turn on plans to end the funding of a nurture group pilot after front-page stories in The Herald and TESS. It was a happy coincidence that the story broke just as Councillor Steven Purcell was taking over as education convener and one of his friends’ children had benefited enormously from being in a nurture class.

The Herald’s investigation into bogus colleges has delivered results.

But as we ponder the future exam landscape, I am reminded of a previous exam review carried out in the immediate aftermath of the SQA crisis. Someone on the NQ Steering Group briefed me about the various options under consideration – including the fact that a Scottish Executive civil servant had asked, ‘What would it take to persuade teachers of the value of having qualifications that were completely internally assessed and had no end-of-course externally-marked exam?’ While working at The Herald, I ran a story that the Scottish Executive was looking at various options, including doing away with externally-assessed exams. The then education minister Jack McConnell went ballistic, denying that such an option was being looked at. By running that story, did we paint Mr McConnell into a corner? Probably not – Scotland was not ready for that kind of move. But what is being discussed now? That very option – except that we are now in a very different climate.

There are other areas where fear of headlines influences policy. Health and safety is a case in point. There is an argument to be made that it is fear of bad headlines that has driven some of the knee-jerk protectionism that surrounds some recent disclosure regulations and some of the regulations in schools.

Personally, I’m with people like Frank Furedi and Sue Palmer who have written extensively about the rise of paranoid parenting. We are now at the stage where a father who tries to take a picture of his sons playing on a slide in a public park will be set upon by other parents and called a pervert.

We’ve had the conkers ban and the Elastoplast ban. Am I the only one who feels that the current climate of risk aversion is being fuelled by officials’ fears that their council will end up with its name in the headlines if that one chance in a million comes to pass?

The theme of your conference is “inspiring leadership”. I would argue that an editor can have a proportionately greater influence than a headteacher has. Editors set their own agenda and they are not working to a common purpose.

One of the biggest changes in newspapers in the 25 years I have been working in them is that newspapers are no longer papers of record. That role has effectively been usurped by 24-hour television and the internet.

So what does that leave newspapers doing? In the worst excesses, they make stories up. More often, they see their role as to “set the agenda”. That is not the same as making up a story, but equally it’s not the same as reporting on something that has actually happened. It’s a case of identifying an issue and making the running on it. I’d like to quote from a Daily Mail story from last year headlined “1500 teachers who get paid not to teach”.

“More than 1,500 teachers are being paid to stay out of the classroom despite growing concern over staff shortages."

New figures show hundreds of staff spend no time teaching but are instead enlisted to work on year-long educational ‘projects’.

This means that many teachers who have seen their wages rise by more than 20 per cent and their working week slashed to 35 hours do not even have to tech to justify their salaries.”

Some pick issues like falling exam standards, or violence against teachers. While I applaud the principles behind the Freedom of Information legislation, it can be a dangerous weapon in some hands. Statistics always have to carry a health warning – eg violence statistics.

If I can quote again from the Daily Mail:

“Startling new figures from the Scottish Executive show that a member of school staff is assaulted or abused every 15 minutes. The Executive’s social inclusion policy – which encourages schools not to expel disruptive children – has been blamed for a surge in assaults on teachers who say it has turned into a ‘thugs’ charter’.”

I suspect that if you drilled down into these statistics, they would show that many of the figures relate to children with special needs, often within special units, and that they include three-year-olds at nursery lashing out at staff when having a tantrum.

But FoI is a double-edged sword. Council press officers, if they want to delay their response to a media inquiry, sometimes choose to treat it as an FoI request, which gives them 20 working days to give a response. In the case of the most recent probationers’ employment survey by TESS, virtually every council answered our queries on how many post-probationers had been given jobs except for Argyll and Bute, who said they were treating it as an FoI. After several phone calls, they were persuaded to give us the information. At the time of running the survey, TESS was accused by Fiona Hyslop of being out of date with its figures – they had actually been collated within a week of publication. But just think what Ms Hyslop would have said if half our figures had been given via FoI – they could have been a month out of date.

On the subject of probationers, the workforce employment report issued last month warned there were signs that media reporting of probationer employment issues were having an impact on the number of applications to teacher-training. The implication is that the press is scaremongering and it will be the newspapers’ fault if not enough people apply to become teachers in future.

But what would you do in our place in this instance? This is the same dilemma that faced the BBC when reports came in of customers beginning to queue outside Northern Rock Building Societies to withdraw their savings. If you show pictures of queues, will you cause a stampede? What they did was monitor the situation and when it became clear that queues were building up spontaneously, then reported on it. The media hasn’t created a near-crisis in probationer unemployment – a combination of factors has. But it is our duty to respond to concerns and issues.

Our own inquiries were prompted by postings on the TES online chatroom – new teachers had been discussing the lack of jobs for some time. If we had ignored that we would have been failing in duty as the teachers’ paper.

It was on the same online chatroom that two years ago, a number of participants commented with vitriol on the awarding of the Probationer of the Year award to Susan Ward, an Edinburgh-based probationer, in the UK teaching awards. She recently wrote a comment on the highs and lows of that time – appeared in TESS alongside report of St Ninian’s High teacher David Miller winning secondary teacher of the year award. I’d like to quote from it.

“A friend alerted me to 'The TESS' website where a discussion thread, entitled "vomit-inducing news item"

had erupted within hours of the televised show. There, I found teachers debating the validity of the award, questioning my credentials and engaging in a general "what's she doing that's so special?" discussion. I was horrified. I posted a response; I felt it was unfair and totally inappropriate to respond so negatively to an event which was an opportunity to celebrate success in Scottish education. The media picked up the story and, by the following day, I was again front-page news, but for a much less happy reason: I was a "tall poppy" - that is, way above myself.

The response from the wider teaching community was swift and forceful. I received letters of support from as far as Canada and Australia. My email inbox crashed with the volume of supportive emails.

In the following months, I was stopped in the street many times by parents and people from the Juniper Green community who wanted to wish me well. Edinburgh city councillors hosted a civic reception in my honour and let me invite 30 guests.

The initial backlash was unpleasant, but the subsequent response by the teaching community was important because it fuelled the debate about success and achievement in Scotland.” I would argue that was a valid story because it exposed divisions in the Scottish education community about such awards.

But I would also argue that attitudes in Scotland to showcasing good practice/innovative work have changes When my colleague, Gillian Macdonald, launched the Scotland Plus features section of TESS 12 years ago, it was difficult to persuade teachers and schools to put themselves forward for features about the good things they were doing in the classroom. There has been a change of culture since then among headteachers and teachers.

So I would urge schools to engage with the media, albeit with caution in some cases. But very often you can prevent bad headlines by giving background information and putting things in context where possible.

I’m treading on sensitive territory here, but I can’t help but wonder whether some of the headlines surrounding the tragic suicide of Irene Hogg might have been mitigated if there had been more communication to the media – on a strictly background basis. Circumstances have constrained the full background coming out, but it is highly unlikely that a poor inspection report was the sole cause of her distress.

It’s important to communicate, as this Edinburgh Evening News case bears out. Every Saturday morning a reporter would phone up Lothian and Borders Police press officer and ask if anything had happened overnight. Invariably the press office would say nothing had happened. So the Evening News decided to put in an FoI request asking for details of all incidents reported over 24 hours. It then ran a front-page story headlined, “A typical day in Edinburgh”. It listed car thefts, assaults, breaches of the peace etc.etc. And at the end of the story, in large type, P.S. Lothian and Borders Police said nothing happened.

Headlines won’t always be good as doubtless some of you know to your cost. I’d like to hold up Morag Towndrow, head of Barrhead High, and her school as a glowing example of how to shame the local press.

The Barrhead News had run a banner headline proclaiming “teachers’ terror” and story claiming that pupils were sexually harassing female teachers. So incensed were the pupils that they decided to publish their own newsletter rebutting all the allegations, which they then distributed in front of the newspaper’s own office and in the main street of the town. The S1 pupil council wrote to all the major advertisers. This happened in June 2006. Today it would be described as a Curriculum for Excellence cross-curricular project.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of editors and sub-editors, to pay particular attention to certain areas of the curriculum so that the next generation of journalists have the right tools: these are spelling, grammar, resume-writing (something I had to do when I sat Higher English) and how to understand statistics.