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Putting a spin on the road to ruin

Years ago, when I was a reporter on a daily newspaper, I witnessed a strange incident at a protest over an industrial dispute. Three demonstrators, all middle-aged women employed by the local authority, had broken away from the main throng and were standing in front of a barrier that councillors passed on the way to a car park.

Each time a councillor drove up, the three women would raise their placards and intone a few low-key chants of dissent before handing the driver a leaflet about their grievances. Their point made - this took perhaps 30 seconds each time - they would step aside and let the councillor drive through the barrier.

One elected member, however, would not countenance the slightest delay. As he waited on an adjoining road, some 30 yards from the barrier, he blared his horn repeatedly. The women did not move. Suddenly, the councillor rammed his foot on the accelerator and sped round the corner, slamming on the brakes a few feet from the protesters.

Most of us looked on in stunned disbelief. But a press officer for the local council - normally employed to weave fine words for those such as the car's occupant - strode over to jab his finger at the driver and tell him exactly how dangerous his actions had been.

It was one of the easiest stories I have ever written - I had to do little more than let the facts speak for themselves. So I was taken aback to read an account of the incident by a rival reporter, who had been standing right next to me when it occurred. She painted the councillor as the victim of an intimidating mob, making no mention of his extraordinarily reckless driving. I have no idea why my counterpart chose to write up what had happened in this way. The point is that sometimes, even when drawing on the exact same facts, a story can be presented entirely differently.

Sometimes an overriding narrative gathers momentum and the facts are found to fit it. The "impending disaster" of Curriculum for Excellence is one such narrative. This week, CfE achieved a first by appearing on the front page of one of Scotland's most popular tabloids. There has been a rising tide of negative stories about CfE and the new National qualifications in the mainstream press recently. Most have explored legitimate concerns, but examined as a whole the lay reader would assume that Scotland's education system is hurtling towards a catastrophe of epic proportions.

There is no doubting the extreme pressure teachers are under or their infuriation at the powers that be insisting everything's just dandy. But many teachers still tell TESS that the principles of CfE can emerge gleaming from the tumult of this first year of the Nationals. To paraphrase Kipling, be aware that triumph and disaster are both impostors - it's time to keep the heid.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk

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