Barrhead answers in kind

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Pupil power at Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire took to the streets last week after a local newspaper carried banner headlines proclaiming "teachers' terror" and claiming that pupils were sexually harassing female teachers.

So incensed were pupils by the front-page article in the Barrhead News that they decided to publish their own newsletter rebutting all the allegations.

With the backing of their headteacher, Morag Towndrow, the S1 and S2 pupils wrote their own publication, which they entitled the Real News from Barrhead High School, and distributed it in front of the local paper's offices and at other popular places in the main street of the town.

Grant Maybury, S2, said: "We felt that the writers of the story put it across as if Barrhead High School is full of riff-raff. This school has had many awards (none of which the Barrhead News has reported). This newsletter is to say that Barrhead High School is great and proud of it."

The local paper had printed a photograph of pupils, not in uniform, outside a building which was not Barrhead High to accompany the article.

Pupils hit back, saying: "Barrhead High School has a very strict policy because, if you come to school with tracksuit bottoms on, you get sent home to change them. But if your trousers are in the wash, then it is OK to keep them on."

The newsletter also carried a long list of the school's achievements. These include the fact that it will considerably overtake East Renfrewshire's S2 targets for reading, writing and mathematics this session. In addition, attendance targets have been beaten and timekeeping has improved.

The pupils also pointed to other achievements such as regular Friday charity collections which have netted more than pound;3,000 this session, the school's national award for film-making and the under-15 girls' basketball squad who won the Scottish Cup.

In stark contrast, the Barrhead News said that a teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, had claimed staff were being terrorised by teenagers shouting abuse, issuing threats and making lewd and indecent comments.

The article claimed that the school's management "don't want to know about the unruly antics because they're scared a clampdown would tarnish the reputation of the school".

It also alleged that pupils had obtained the extension numbers of staff and were making threatening and sexually harassing calls to female teachers.

Barrhead High is one of Scotland's schools of ambition, and the head said that staff had given her their complete support. There was real doubt whether the "anonymous" complainant was in fact a current member of staff.

When the article was published on May 19, Mrs Towndrow closed the school five minutes early for a staff meeting. "Everyone was absolutely outraged.

They saw it as an attack on themselves - they said they didn't have low morale -and an attack on the youngsters. They (the teachers) are very conscious of their jobs. If people believe that article, they might not send their children here. I hope we don't lose youngsters because of it."

Mrs Towndrow said the first three years of the school had held emergency pupil council meetings (the others are on exam leave). The S1 pupil council decided to write to all major advertisers in the Barrhead News to "point out that the newspaper carries lies which might reflect badly on those who advertise"; the S2 pupil council is running a pupil petition and has contacted Kathleen Marshall, the Children's Commissioner, for advice; the S3 pupil council discussed production of a newsletter, which the S1 and S2 pupils wrote.

The pupils distributed 400 copies of their newsletter and received a 99 per cent sympathetic response from members of the public, Mrs Towndrow said.

She had told the pupils: "These people are suggesting you are absolute toe-rags and complete scum. Don't do something stupid, but come to me with good ideas about what you can do."

Mrs Towndrow said she had been delighted with the response and the experience had strengthened the school community.

It had also taught her, as a headteacher, not to look at the local press through rose-tinted glasses. Just because good stories from the school helped a paper's sales did not mean that the newspaper would always report on the school fairly, she said.

"My advice to other headteachers finding themselves in a similar situation would be to do what we did - be open and honest with the young people; not to get down and dirty and demean themselves or their school; and to use any support from professional public relations officers they have.

"But they should also be open and honest with the youngsters about exactly what has happened. They should not hide or be intimidated by this kind of thing, but say: 'You printed something that was not true and we are not putting up with it'."

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