The Issue: Photographing results day

19th August 2011 at 01:00
When it comes to pictures of girls jumping for joy on exam results day, there's a fine line between celebration and exploitation

Earlier this month Chris Cook, education correspondent for the Financial Times, revealed how he had been approached last summer by publicity-seeking schools offering photo-shoots of girls receiving their A-level results ("We're just not that kind of newspaper", FT, 1 August).

One voicemail from Badminton School in Bristol said: "Just wanting to give you some details of some absolutely beyootiful girls we've got here who are getting their A-results tomorrow. Some lovely stories . They're amazing girls." Independent school Bedales, in Hampshire, supplied pictures of girls celebrating their GCSE results. None included male students or "dowdier" girls, Mr Cook wrote.

The phenomenon of leaping girls at exam time has given birth to a blog that ironically records newspaper images of girls - they are nearly always girls - obligingly performing for the cameras.

The "sexy A-levels" blog on Twitter (#sexyalevels) observes that a truly stereotypical A-level story should include girls who are: 1. blonde, 2. twins, 3. going to Oxbridge, 4. leaping for joy, 5. holding aloft their results. It adds, laconically, that the leap should not be "so high as to obscure a glimpse of decolletage".

Many schools are aware that they are more likely to appear on the front page of their local newspaper if they play along with requests to include some pretty girls among the sixth-formers opening their results envelopes. If they are also jumping for joy, so much the better.

Does it matter? Yes, says Helen Wright, president of the Girls' Schools Association and head of St Mary's Calne School for girls in Wiltshire. She says schools have a responsibility to ensure pupils are not urged to conform to media stereotypes that all too often depict females as sexual objects or images of physical perfection.

"It is not surprising the media would do that, but it is shocking to think schools would collude in it, no matter how unwittingly," Dr Wright said. "What we seek to do at St Mary's is to develop individuals as human beings. If girls are doing well, we should celebrate with happy, smiley pictures, but it should be their achievements not their appearance we should be celebrating.

"We would make sure they would not present themselves in a trivial or inappropriate way. The picture of a girl leaping in the air, midriff showing, presenting herself in a slightly provocative way, albeit unconsciously - we as a society should be more critical about what such images communicate.

"The image of a girl jumping for joy actually trivialises her achievement. This is an 18-year-old woman, but actually she is being asked to behave like a child. There is something not right about that.

"If the girls themselves have not learnt how to deal with that - and you cannot blame them - then as schools we have to make sure the girls present themselves in an appropriate fashion. We have to change the way we as a society view young women and we have to start from the ground up."

Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School in east London and a TES columnist, says schools looking for positive publicity at exam time should be careful to remain in control whenever photos are taken and should always seek to present their students as role models.

"We always try to make sure, if we do take pictures, that we get an ethnic mix and also include boys. It should not be a beauty contest," she said.

Showing your successful side

  • Stay in control of any photo-shoot and say no to inappropriate poses.
  • Consider taking your own publicity photos.
  • Ensure images and any press release are inclusive and represent all pupils' success.
  • Make your own video clip celebrating your pupils' achievements.
  • Promote successful pupils as role models for your school.

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