Ah, the bells, the bells...

30th June 2000, 1:00am
Hugh Dougherty


Ah, the bells, the bells...

End of term means far more to Hugh Dougherty than the summer holidays. For a local authority press officer, it also means a too brief respite from a growing mound of problems.

IT'S BEEN dubbed the dominie's new year. And it's a glorious sound longed for by teachers and pupils alike, for the last bell of the summer term marks the start - for the time being at least - of those long summer holidays when teachers put away the overhead projector and the marker pens, and head for the hills.

But for me, and press officers like me who deal with education, the final bell is just as welcome. In our office, as the last wean troops out for the Great Release from school, the phones stop ringing.

The silence is audible and the blessed sense of peace which pervades the office is palpable, for you know that there will be no more calls about school buses not turning up, placing requests, crumbling schools, league tables, pupils fighting, exam pressure, denominational schools and inspections for at least six weeks, and you can settle down to getting those leaflets done for the director or for X primary school which has been waiting some months as you have flitted from crisis to crisis.

It is not that education itself is in crisis. True, it is under pressure, but what is also true is that the media, as never before, are devouring stories about education.

That keeps every local authority press officer who dares to take on the dreaded and complex education remit very busy indeed. In addition, the modern school is very much a part of society, which doesn't stop at its gates but which imports every problem and news-making trend into the classroom itself. So schools are having to deal more and more with the results of society's breakdown at so many levels.

In the past few years, the number of press inquiries and school emergencies involving violence, drugs, the results of family breakdown, violent parents, kinky teachers and general problems which hit the headlines, has soared. The amount of liaison with social work colleagues and police has also soared, as solutions are sought and reasonable responses formatted for release to local and national media.

Headteachers and those i the classroom all tell me that they are now having to deal with increasing numbers of problems rising from the marriages of parents breaking up, tugs-of-love over children, families in serious debt and general social breakdown. The resulting kids in trauma and kids in crisis stories make good copy, so you usually find that the fourth-year pupil who assaulted one of his peers has a more than interesting tale that unfolds during investigations.

Often the tensions which led to the assault were generated by events on the street that had nothing to do with the life of the school.

But teachers have to realise that there is a media expectation that they as professionals will accomplish what virtually no one else can today - to contain, entertain and educate youngsters, as well as influence their behaviour outside of school, too.

That means behaving on school buses, not dropping litter outside the local shops at lunchtime, not noising up local residents, and not falling off the platform just as the school train arrives.

The truth is that a close look at the inquiries we deal with would reveal the vast majority have little to do with education itself. The real hassles come from what happens outside the school. Those within education - exam results, placing request stories and absence cover - are normally fairly straightforward to deal with in media terms, as you reach for your file on council policy.

The last bell of the term is to be savoured on all counts, for not only does it give press officers a respite from the pressures of dealing with education and the media, but it also throws into contrast the other council services you minister to, constantly pointing up education as the most newsworthy, the most enquired about, and the most complex and demanding to handle - and handle well.

The one problem is that the first bell of the autumn term comes all too soon.

And by 9am, the school buses won't have turned up, two kids will have been denied entry to the school they want to go to and the phones will be ringing again. That's what we in press relations mean by the school bell.

Hugh Dougherty handles media relations for East Renfrewshire Council.

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