Bad news on the tests tactic

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
"A sort of flatliner" was Kim Catcheside's characterisation of this year's national test results on BBC Radio 4's Today, as only those for 14-year-olds improved and targets for 11-year-olds were missed again.

The Sun was more brutal, shrieking FAILED across Chris Woodhead's demand that Education Secretary Charles Clarke resign.

The Government clearly hoped to deflect the attacks by releasing the results a month earlier than usual, amid the annual August exam brouhaha.

To an extent it succeeded due to the UN Baghdad bomb and the Hutton inquiry, which placed the story well down the BBC news's running order.

Yet Wednesday's papers made uncomfortable reading with headlines like "Quarter of children can't read or write" (Express) and "Schools wide of the mark" (Mirror).

However, the story was off the front pages.

The best tactic with bad news is to explain the reasons and your plans to do better. David Miliband, school standards minister, did so in press briefing, which The Guardian reflected in its analysis.

But the Department for Education and Skills press release was a spin too far, as the Independent noted. A good press release should make the Government's case and acknowledge obvious failures.

Under the headline "World class results maintained" the release ignored last year's results for seven and 11-year-olds, highlighting the improvements since 1998. Yet, the key scores have stalled since 2000.

The release reasonably noted signs that the Government's key stage 3 strategy is beginning to work, and mentioned its primary school reforms from September. But one should not have to read a separate statistical release to decode the declaration that "World class standards had been maintained".

Charles Clarke's decision to shift next year's over-ambitious targets to 2006 won't halt the criticism unless 11-year-olds start to perform significantly better.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997-2001

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