We all complain about the press these days. We moan that they never get the story right. On the rare occasions when they understand what we are on about, they ruin everything by simplifying it to the point of absurdity. Worst of all, we point out, they are so keen to criticise. Ten or 15 years ago, we used to complain that education was never reported. Now we complain that it always is.
Such, broadly speaking, is the view that educators take of the press. We may not agree about much, but in despising the press there is, it seems, common ground.
Perhaps: but there is another view. International comparisons are in vogue in education and economics these days; it's about time we applied them to the press. Educators who whinge about our press will find, when they do compare our reporters to those abroad, that they are in for a shock. A leading Australian educator, after she had been here for a couple of months, told me that "the level of public debate is very high". She was impressed, she said, by the quality of the coverage of education in newspapers.
A visiting American academic made similar remarks when I showed him the press cuttings about the recent report on literacy for which I was responsible. He carefully examined what amounted to several days of news stories, including a front page in a quality Sunday paper. "You'd never get a story like this on to the front page in the States," he told me. Meanwhile, The TES is a unique asset, far better than most "trade" journals.
These comments led me to reflect on my own recent experience. Of course there are times when you feel you've been misquoted. There are others when, to you, the journalist appears to have got the wrong end of the stick. But overall you have to be impressed. They work under tight deadlines in a high pressure industry. They have to summarise often complex issues in 400 or 600 words. They have to convince hard-bitten news editors that their story is worth precious space. And they have to wait overnight to check that some other paper has not scooped them.
Worse still, they can be sacked at the drop of a hat. It is not unusual for journalists to be asked to leave within the hour. A security guard will watch as they clear their desk.
Despite these pressures, some correspondents are extremely well-informed. At a press conference on homework in January, Judith Judd of the Independent asked me a question so powerfully informed by international evidence and knowledge of UK educational history, that I began to think she should have done the research rather than me. (Some of my colleagues might think that reflects more on me than her, but let that pass!) Richard Garner at the Daily Mirror has kept the education flag flying in that harsh environment through the reigns of six editors. Tim Miles at the Press Association assiduously rings back to check that he is quoting accurately.
And their training and experience show. All too often they do ask the truly uncomfortable question. This may not endear them to the person on the receiving end, but that is their job. It is true that when they summarise research they do not record all the caveats that are the stuff of academic writing, but that is their job too.
Sometimes they make mistakes like the rest of us but, when they are accused of an error, often it is in fact someone else passing the buck. After all, when something you have said to the press is quoted accurately but turns out to be highly controversial, it is tempting to say "You don't want to believe everything you read in the papers, you know", rather than to defend the remark.
This is not to say that as a group they are beyond criticism. I think they share, with the rest of their profession, an excessive preference for the new rather than the important. After all, most people only read one paper a day. Surely they are interested more in a lucid, clear (and if possible entertaining) report of the day's most important developments, than in whether their paper has a story first or not.
Another thing I miss is analytical pieces by journalists themselves. Both the Guardian and the Independent have substantial education sections. The Telegraph and The Times devote a page to it each week. There is no shortage of space for them to write. Years ago, before he went on to even greater things, the incomparable Peter Wilby, then education editor at the Independent, used to write a weekly analytical column. With his many contacts, deep background knowledge, sceptical mind and crisp style, it was a must for anyone involved in education.
John Carvel's occasional pieces on the Guardian's editorial pages always challenge or provoke. The papers are full of journalists writing analytical political columns, some of them brilliant; why not similar education columns now that it has moved to centre stage?
Last year, I read three pieces of research which all pointed in the same direction.
I discovered that Integrated Learning Systems assume that children will give up unless they succeed four times for each time they fail. Then I discovered that evening class students are likely to stop going unless they are praised four times for each time they are criticised.
Finally, and most worryingly, I discovered that a praise-blame ratio of four to one between partners is strongly associated with the long-term success of marriages!
So let's hear it for our education correspondents four times over! I just thought that if we applied this praise-blame ratio to journalists, they might return the compliment. And of course now that I've done my four parts praise on the back of The TES, next time the correspondents blunder I can really lay into them with a clean conscience.