Balls in your court

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Oh hurrah, the Schools Secretary - or perhaps the PM! - is to honour your school with a visit. But hang on, will you simply be used as a backdrop for political flag-waving in the run-up to election day?

Tony Blair's smiling face is nowhere to be seen at St Saviour's and St Olave's School in Southwark. Although the former prime minister visited the southeast London school in 2001, there are no pictures in the corridors to mark the occasion.

While the Queen features prominently in the school's centenary album, Mr Blair is noticeably absent. It seems his visit has been totally airbrushed from the school's collective memory. "It was a very bruising experience," says Dr Irene Bishop, the headteacher, in a rare media interview about the event. "We felt used. I can't pretend we didn't."

Politicians visiting schools has become the modern equivalent of kissing babies. You know it is election time when top politicians are caught on camera fervently mingling with every pupil and teacher within reach.

Most schools bask in the reflected glory - happy to have their achievements recognised more widely. But on rare occasions, it can have unexpected repercussions.

Mr Blair came to St Saviour's at short notice in May 2001 to announce the general election. It was a historic occasion - the first time it had been announced from a school rather than Downing Street.

But it went down in the history books for all the wrong reasons. Private Eye had already satarised "Rev Blair" as the trendy young "vicar of St Albion". So when he delivered his speech under the stained glass windows of the church school's hall clutching a hymn book and "preaching" to the next generation of voters, the press had a field day.

They derided the stunt as "shameless", "toe-curlingly tasteless" and "cheesier than a Wotsits factory". It was perceived as another example of New Labour "spinning" out of control. They made no mention of the hour Mr Blair and David Blunkett, the then education secretary, spent looking around the school and listening to teachers' concerns.

Dr Bishop had no objection to the election announcement being made at her school, especially after Labour had declared education its number one priority in 1997. But the way in which the visit morphed into a party political broadcast left her feeling decidedly queasy.

Rather than addressing the pupils in assembly, Mr Blair talked to the TV cameras. He spoke about the "boom and bust" economy of the 1980s, even though the majority of his audience had only just been born during that decade. His musings on mortgage rates, the national debt, investment levels, welfare reform and the Northern Ireland peace process may also have gone over the girls' heads.

"I kept on willing him to talk to the children, but instead he talked to the country," says Dr Bishop. "If I had known what was coming, I would have suggested the party political part of the speech was done in a separate room without pupils. Instead, we were just wallpaper."

It did not help that some members of the media behaved poorly. They had suspected a major announcement would be made and hundreds crowded into the hall, pushing children out of their seats so they could sit down.

Then came the misquotes and misrepresentations. Mr Blair was not standing under a crucifix and did not leave halfway through a hymn, as some papers reported. And pupils were not falling asleep during his speech, nor were they told to clap when he walked in.

"They hadn't been rehearsed to cheer," Dr Bishop says. "They are warm, spontaneous girls and that is exactly the sort of thing they do. One of the Year 8 girls was mortified that a picture implied she was bored or falling asleep. She said she didn't want to come into school afterwards."

Most embarrassing of all, Dr Bishop was reported as saying that Mr Blair was "the most wonderful Prime Minister in the world". In fact, she had said how pleased and proud they were that the British Prime Minister, one of the most important people in the world, had chosen to visit their school.

"It made me seem like some sort of fanatical Blairite," says Dr Bishop. "It was such a ridiculously childish statement - I'd never say something like that. My husband said it didn't sound like me, but I was worried what others would think."

When she made a complaint to the paper concerned, a new story was run, titled "Headteacher slams PM". A subsequent interview she gave to a newspaper was also written up in a misleading way, she felt, making her sound more critical of the visit than was the case.

Journalists started calling Dr Bishop on her home number; others camped outside the chair of governors' house. She was invited to appear on a number of TV programmes to "put the record straight", but declined for fear of having her words misrepresented again.

Despite the fallout, Dr Bishop is not opposed to entertaining high-profile visitors. In addition to two Archbishops and the Queen, dozens of politicians of all hues have been through the school's doors, including Tory schools spokesman Nick Gibb and Lib Dem frontbencher Simon Hughes. Among the Labour stalwarts to pay a visit are one-time junior schools minister Lord Adonis, former minister Chris Smith, deputy party leader Harriet Harman and thespian-turned-MP Glenda Jackson.

They come to award prizes, give speeches, launch educational schemes and, more often than not, to learn from the school's remarkable transformation. In 1994, 17 per cent of pupils at St Saviour's obtained five or more A*-Cs at GCSE. Fifteen years on, 76 per cent hit that benchmark - a staggering 59 per cent leap. And last year, it was judged "outstanding" by Ofsted for the second consecutive time.

Dr Bishop wants to celebrate the school's success with visitors, but has become much more cautious. Now she makes sure she knows the purpose of the visit beforehand, plus has a clear idea about what is going to happen.

With schools a key electoral battleground in the coming weeks, they present the ideal place to deliver an education manifesto in situ. Consequently, many good or improving schools may have to weigh up whether to accept a politician's request to visit in the run-up to this year's general election. Last month, for example, David Cameron chose Walworth Academy, a stone's throw from St Saviour's in south-east London, as the venue to announce the Tories' promises of a "brazenly elitist" approach to teacher recruitment.

Sometimes it is not the politician who gets all the attention. When Gordon Brown visited Prendergast-Hilly Fields College in London last May, he - and his minders - were apparently unaware of the Second World War montage behind him. The picture of the Prime Minister smiling in front of a swastika was probably not the image that either the school or the Labour Party had hoped for.

But for every disastrous PR stunt, there are dozens of schools where VIP visits have lived up to the hype. Mossbourne Community Academy in London may be one of the most visited in the country.

Since Tony Blair opened it in 2004, Tory leader David Cameron, Gordon Brown, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, Lord Adonis and Nick Gibb have all paid a visit. Its proximity to Westminster probably helps, says Sir Michael Wilshaw, its principal. But it is Mossbourne's success and distinctive culture that draws people in, plus the fact that it is one of the founding academies.

"The large number of visitors proves that education is at the top of the political agenda, where it should be," says Sir Michael. "I remember when it wasn't. You can't have it both ways - if you want it to be the number one priority, you have got to expect more attention."

He would prefer politicians to see how schools work first-hand rather than rely on advisors or reports, and insists it is a useful opportunity to influence policy. The pupils may have become a little blase, but Sir Michael is adamant that a visit is an honour not a chore. "It shows that you are worth visiting," he says. "You must be doing something right if a politician voices an interest."

So what should schools expect if politicians come to call? It can be quite disruptive to the school day, especially if it involves a leader of one of the main political parties. When Sally Coates was deputy head of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic School in London, Tony Blair came to call, along with Charles Clarke, the then education secretary.

Security forces with sniffer dogs checked out the campus the day before and the morning of the visit, and it was agreed that the pupils would not change classes while the visitors were at the school.

"It was controllable excitement, but it could have got out of hand with all the media around," says Ms Coates. "They wanted the kids lining the gates, waving for the cameras."

Both Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his shadow Michael Gove have paid visits to Ms Coates' current school, Burlington Danes Academy in London; they were more low-key affairs, with minimal security. "It's intriguing seeing these politicians close up and seeing politics in action," says Ms Coates, who is now principal. "Tony Blair was charming and so charismatic. I remember he wore a very nice suit."

She was also impressed with Mr Balls and Mr Gove. "It's good PR for the school and it makes the kids feel special," she adds. "It shows them that the school must be worth it and that inner-city kids matter."

It is a win-win situation for everyone, Ms Coates adds: the politicians get a platform and an insight into how schools work, while the school gets attention and recognition.

Theresa Aanonson, head of St Luke's Primary School in Newham, London, agrees. She has been at the school for 14 years and has learnt that the image of the school is vitally important. As long as politicians fit into the school day, they are welcome.

Jim Fitzpatrick, the local Labour MP, is a regular and a "good friend" of the school, but last term it hosted a visit from Ed Balls as well. While he was there, Mr Balls launched the energy-saving smart meters scheme and also staged the official acceptance of the Children's Statement on Climate Change, which then made its way to the Copenhagen summit in December last year.

"He was very refreshing," says Ms Aanonson. "The first 10 minutes was `me time' when I could have a frank, constructive chat with him. It was nice to feel that someone was listening and that my views are important. I have subsequently had a written response about what we talked about."

Mr Balls went on to answer pupils' questions informally and was given a tour. The local press covered the event, but no national newspapers turned up. But Ms Aanonson has rejected requests from politicians to visit in the past. "I instinctively know if it will be wrong for the school," she says. "The school and the pupils have to come first."

Peter Cresswell, head of Crossdale Drive primary in Nottingham, was nervous when Mr Balls and schools minister Vernon Coaker came to visit last November. "I was not particularly looking forward to it, but I thought it would be good to raise our profile."

He was not disappointed. The visit started with a one-to-one discussion with Mr Balls - before the politicians turned their attention to the pupils. Mr Balls, who is a former Crossdale pupil, was asked who his best friend had been during his school days. It tuned out that the man's daughter was at the school, sitting in front of him. "The human level really blew him away," says Mr Cresswell. "He was genuinely quite emotional looking round his old school. It was quite endearing."

But could such trips ever be seen as exploitative? Children's charity NSPCC certainly thinks so. It accused both Labour and the Conservatives of exploiting children to win votes in 2001: Labour for its visit to St Saviour's, and the Tories for using images of young people dealing drugs in an election broadcast. It added that children should not be "vilified" or used as "props" in the run-up to an election. It is yet to be seen whether the 2010 campaign will run a similar course.

But even with hindsight, Dr Bishop would still have accepted the 2001 request by Tony Blair's office. As one of the most improved schools in London, St Saviour's was riding high and she wanted to share that excitement and pride across the whole school. However, she admits that she would have liked a firmer hand on the reins. "I would need to ensure that I wasn't used and the children weren't used," she says. "If that is taken care of, then I think it can be a really good thing."

Dr Bishop had thought it might be nice if Mr Blair stood behind the school's lectern, with St Saviour's name emblazoned across the front. Instead, she was relieved it had been rejected in favour of an anonymous plain desk with 50 or so microphones lined up along it. "That was a blessing, I guess."

Looking around the school hall today, she recognises it could have been worse, pointing towards a majestic looking wooden chair with a high back and sweeping arm rests. "Thank God he didn't use our throne," she laughs.

Back to school: What the Politicians Say

"I always try to find the time to visit as many schools as possible, and always find them useful and informative. It is the best way to hear about concrete examples of how the Government is making teachers' lives harder, be it some pointless piece of bureaucracy or a way in which ministers have watered down their powers to keep order. Often I can then put these to a minister in Parliament, as well as taking them into consideration when coming up with our own education policies."

  • Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary
    • "It is only by getting out of Westminster, seeing what is happening at the frontline and talking to teachers, headteachers and governors that I can judge what we need to do differently at the centre on schools policy.

      "It is only by talking to pupils that I can get a genuine feel for whether we are making progress on standards and discipline, and that is why I always insist on meeting the student council. And it is only by seeing for myself the difference which our funding is making in schools and children's centres across the country that I can make the argument for protecting and building on that investment in the years to come."

      • Ed Balls, Schools Secretary
        • What to expect

          • The relevant department will contact you about a visit weeks in advance.
          • You may not be told who is visiting - simply "a high-ranking politician".
          • You will probably be asked to create a loose itinerary, including a one- to-one conversation with the politician, plus a tour of the school and a meeting with the school council.
          • There will not be time to spruce the school up. Politicians would rather see it "warts and all".
          • For the most senior politicians, security - including sniffer dogs - will come to the school before the official visit.
          • There will always be national press following for the most senior politicians or members of the royal family. For other ministers, local papers or TV crews may be present.
          • Visits rarely take more than an hour and do not include meals. Politicians will usually have to rush off to their next engagement.

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