Dalton's Diary

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Many governors have found themselves dealing with the media for the first time this year. The prominent part we have played in protesting about cuts in education funding has suddenly made us public figures, and it is not always easy to respond in a measured, reasonable way, when the brief of the journalist is to produce as dramatic a story as possible. Have you noticed how often interviewers begin questions with the word "HowI"?

"How worriedI?", "How angryI?", "How seriouslyI?" It is almost impossible to resist the impulse to begin your reply with the word "Very..." I was asked to speak on local radio on behalf of our county governors' association when governors in other parts of the country, even worse hit than ours, were threatening mass resignations and the setting of illegal budgets. I explained to the researcher who contacted me that, although I could see how some governors could be driven to such desperate measures, it did not actually solve the problem for their school - the local education authority would have to step in and make the cuts, possibly less sensitively.

Nevertheless, a couple of hours later, sitting in front of a microphone waiting to broadcast live to literally scores of people, I heard the programme presenter introduce me with the pronouncement, "School governors in the county are poised for a mass walk-outI" After all the excitement of this year's budget round had subsided a little, the association decided, first, to keep up the pressure about funding by compiling statistics about the effects of cut on schools and bombarding local and national politicians with the results; and second, to get our relationships with the local media on a more organised footing with a named press officer (yes, I know, but I do have trouble saying no) and more issuing of prepared press releases rather than ad hoc interviews.

It also seemed a good idea to offer advice to individual schools. The media seemed to have latched on to the idea that governors are responsible for everything, from sex education to bullying, OFSTED to health and safety. In fact, it seems sometimes that our main function in any crisis is to take the blame - and give the interviews.

Our first suggestion is to court good publicity - build up the reputation of your school by issuing frequent reports of students' sporting and academic achievements, charity fund-raising, environmental initiatives, all with pictures of smiling kids. Many communities now have free newspapers which are always glad of good news stories, and it is the local community you need on your side when things go wrong.

Having parents on your side helps too. If a school has a fair, effective and well-publicised complaints procedure involving governors, parents are less likely to go rushing to the newspapers when they feel they have a grievance.

But when the worst happens, an accident to a child or member of staff, major vandalism, or scandal, governors can play a vital part in representing the school to the media, allowing the staff to deal with the really important people - the pupils and their parents.

Have one named governor, probably the chair, as a spokesman for the governing body and the school, well briefed by the head about the facts, and encourage everyone else to keep quiet. Make sure people know that if they are asked to comment "off the record", it does not mean they will not be quoted, only that they will not be directly named.

Be as polite and helpful as you can; journalists make better friends than enemies and, at the moment, they are on our side too.

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