Media gnawed at the wrong election bones

15th June 2001 at 01:00
HE week before polling day, the president of the National Association of Head Teachers called for politics to be taken out of education. She was too late. It had already been extracted.

Indeed, throughout the election, campaign politics and education were as segregated as men and women in a Victorian workhouse. Election politics were dominated by the Euro, Prescott's punch, the problems of a landslide majority, and whether or not Ffion was a ventriloquist's dummy.

A much better slogan for everyone who cares about schools would have been:

"Put the education into politics."

It is too easy to blame politicians and shadowy spin doctors. But on this occasion the media, with a few notable exceptions, must take much of the blame for ignoring education issues.

However, the campaign did begin promisingly for those who believed education should be a key issue. After all, Tony Blair chose a school as the location to call the election. But it didn't really work. Children should not be used as political props. The photo opportunity backfired and the media focus became political spin, not education.

Next it was the Tories' chance to promote education with their manifesto. But this slim document, with no separate education section, contained just 46 short sentences on schools and universities. Not surprisingly, the media focus went elsewhere.

The Tories' difficulty was that once they had said their main policy was to set schools free from outside interference, it was awkward for them to say more without the risk of seeming to interfere.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto gave substantial column inches to education. But analysis of their policies was shunned by the tabloids.

Then it was Labour's turn. Their manifesto insisted education was their "number one priority", but since all the detail had been pre-empted by the Government's Green Paper in February, there were no surprises.

Although there was plenty to chew on, the media had bigger and juicier bones to gnaw at that day. First, hospitals grabbed the agenda when the distressed partner of a cancer patient harangued the Prime Minister. Then the newspapers were distracted by the eputy Prime Minister's left jab.

So, a week gone and education remained out of sight. Would it take an angry parent to harangue Blair or an enraged headteacher to throw an egg at Blunkett to force it on to the agenda?

The following day Labour tried again, despatching the Education Secretary to a photo-call at a nursery school and making schools and hospitals the theme of their morning press conference.

Gordon Brown (refereeing) took questions from journalists. But the usual political editors were called for all the early questions. Ignoring education and health, they focused on Mr Prescott's punch and the Euro.

I understand why political correspondents believe their job is to expose the divisions within, rather than between, political parties. But during an election, surely there should also be time for scrutinising the differences between the parties on policy issues?

A fortnight into the campaign and education remained under wraps, not helped by the Conservatives choosing a Saturday, the quietest day of the week for election coverage, to launch their education policies.

Labour tried a re-launch of the education section of their manifesto at their morning news conference, followed by a Blunkett-and-Blair experience at Southampton University.

In Southampton, the audience was mainly students and academics, but only journalists were allowed to ask questions. They were jeered as the first five questions focused on tax or Europe. An ironic cheer greeted the sixth question on education. Would the journalists take the hint?

Only in the last full week of the campaign did education finally make a brief break-out. A coincidental combination of the Today programme choosing education as its theme, Labour "putting schools and hospitals first" at their morning news conference, and the headteachers' leader, David Hart, describing Britain's public services as "third world", proved inflammable.

The evening news and current affairs programmes finally led on education. Newspapers gave it lots of column inches. But it was education's only big day of the campaign. Was one day really enough?

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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