Learn to inhale oxygen of publicity

10th October 1997, 1:00am
David Barrie


Learn to inhale oxygen of publicity

As we enter the new information age schools need to lose their paranoia about media bogeymen, argues David Barrie

It takes three things to get a school to participate in a television programme - the tenacity of an insurance salesman, the negotiating skills of Boutros Boutros Ghali and the skin of a rhino.

Last year, I made a series of documentaries for the BBC on education since the 1950s. To present a personable, oral history, I decided to concentrate on the life and times of one school. It took 12 months to produce. The first eight were spent finding a school which would agree to take part.

Just last month, I produced a popular audit of education for Channel 4. Rather than listen to parents and teachers, I wanted to gather student opinion, the forgotten stakeholders of British education. What did they like about school? How might the quality of their education be improved? I approached headteachers with enthusiasm. Fifty telephone calls later no taker; 10 more, praise the Lord, two leads.

Ever since Panorama's The Best Days?, the 1977 Gothic account of disruptive goings-on at The Faraday School, Ealing, the attitude of schools to broadcast journalism has been little short of pathetic.

To schools, telly folk are either unreconstructed graduates of Wellington and Balliol, hell-bent on the destruction of comprehensive education, or slavish devotees of The Cult of Woodhead.

To teachers, we're just bastards. To say hello is to hit the play button on an alternative, educational Rock and Roll Years: secondary school swatted by fly-on-the-wall documentary. Then they cite The Ridings and Panorama's secret filming of the troubled Halifax school from across the road.

Bad news, the script goes, is all that we're interested in. The more bullying, teenage pregnancy, drugs or bad teaching the better. Subversion is our craft. All briefcases carry heat-seeking hidden cameras.

The reality is that so few schools are willing to support the media that the lazier producer is forced to resort to some old sensational favourites.

At times, headteachers are so ignorant of what is actually happening in their school, how students and teachers feel about their community, that the very thing they ignore becomes more worthy of attention.

People in school are either so bottled up when they talk to the media, or their analysis of education is so baffling, that it becomes easier to turn to Those Who Will Always Talk, the merry band of the disgruntled. Those who want to report on the mainstream are forced to focus on the marginal or extreme. The commonest response of schools to requests from the media is just to ignore them. A nervous secretary rebuffs your calls. The blackout is total.

A first meeting with the headteacher is promising but often ends in disappointment. You arrive at school wanting to discuss epic themes and issues and all the head does is parade the Shostakovich of Year 8 or an immaculate conception of setting.

To get somewhere is to enter the educational equivalent of passport control. "What school did you go to?" "How do you feel about mixed-ability teaching?" A colleague once had to describe an early suicide attempt to prove that, even though she had been to private school, she was capable of understanding the poor mental health of some of today's children. I was once asked: "As a Jew, how can you represent the experience of Asian students in secondary school?" Stage 3 of gaining access is a process of negotiation, worthy of deep, dark hours at ACAS. They're often an enormous waste of time. Once I had four three-hour meetings with a headteacher to trade the terms and conditions of a possible project. We came to an agreement, only to be thwarted by a second round of talks with his deputy head.

The final frontier - a vote. Sometimes a headteacher will require that the participation of a school in a television programme is put to a vote of all staff. Let the kissing of babies begin! Lunch the governors. Check in with the local authority. Discuss the poems of Andrew Marvell with the head of English. Whip Year 12s into a media studies frenzy. Shower kitchen staff with four-star rosettes.

Of course all relationships are founded upon a degree of trust - and that trust needs to be tested. But, hold on, why the uphill struggle? Isn't education a public service? Aren't schools the property of the public? Don't they have a duty to communicate with the outside world?

No. Schools are accountable to their immediate population. They may be answerable to their local community. But when it comes to the length and breadth of society, forget it.

Political reform may have granted schools greater independence and effectiveness. It may have made them more responsive to the wishes of parents. But it has also turned them into insular, paranoid places.

The headteacher as chief executive is terrified to say anything in public, lest it send the school's stock into freefall. Students are screened, in case an utterly ordinary - but, in the context of today's school, devastating - comment should leak out. Teachers won't talk for fear of losing their job.

For one documentary, I needed to interview 10 teachers from one school. It had taken about three months to find the best talkers. The headteacher had given them clearance "to speak for themselves". My questions were straightforward. I just wanted to understand the school ethos.

When it came to filming, I got my answer. Some of the most confident and accomplished professionals I have ever met were so cautious, the simultaneous translation of a speech by a Kazakhstani diplomat would have been more interesting. One teacher cried out of tension. A second threw in the towel. All wrote to me to apologise for their inadequacy. They had wanted "to speak for themselves" but were unable to.

Two schools agreed to participate in my recent student audit for Channel Four. I struck lucky. Their brightest and best pupils were keen to give the public an honest portrayal of their experience of education.

The survey was a success. Students, I was delighted to report, were supportive of school. They wanted to turn up. They found the curriculum exciting. But, when it came to interviewing a student co-ordinator of the exercise, I was in for a nasty surprise. Prior to running a questionnaire, one of our schools had led a series of special sessions for participating students. Their theme was: "What I like about school".

This wasn't just old-fashioned media manipulation, it was the super-sensitivity of a mini-conglomerate, the terror of today's public sector, a supreme example of the extent to which the expressive, liberated instinct of education has been cowed into submission. Political reform has turned teachers into professional victims, schools into scared mice.

But please, before you beat a total retreat, listen up. Public perception of your work has been so distorted by political opportunism and the mutable self-confidence of our country that you should grab any chance to inform people of what is truly going on.

Recognise that the media are more receptive to public mood. Now that we have entered a new age of New Labour optimism, a period in which the teacher is central to our national renewal, the media are more likely than ever to react to education in a positive way. No more an architect of gloom.

To invite the cameras into school need not be a fate worse than OFSTED. It can be used to promote good practice. There can be a transfer of skills. According to some headteachers I've worked with, the external scrutiny can help clarify an institution's sense of purpose.

Finally, see the moral consequences of "an age of information". New technology means more than just connecting to CompuServe or wiring up for integrated learning. It demands a commitment to democracy, an open attitude to the transmission of ideas, a more adult approach to the media.

David Barrie is a freelance television producer and director

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