Now the good news

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
In special measures? Get a press officer, says Helen Horne.

Most schools don't have spin doctors. But for nine months that's what I was. Morton school in Carlisle was put in special measures in December 1998 and appointed me the following November. While I can't claim much of the credit for its resurrection - that lies with the management and staff - I feel I played my part. I was appointed with a brief to find as many positive things about the school as possible and plug them like mad.

Carlisle, in Cumbria, has a weekly paper covering the county, and a daily newspaper for the city itself. It also has a commercial television station and two local radio networks. The potential for coverage is therefore enormous. As its media consultant, the school paid me an hourly rate and extra for anything that was covered by the media. So I had a stake in success.

At its peak, Morton had 1,500 pupils. This had fallen to fewer than 1,000 by the end of 1998, and by last year the roll was down to 800. The school desperately needed to attract parents.

That's where I came in. As in most schools, someone had responsibility for media coverage, but it wasn't a priority. The school management team, governors and staff decided they needed a specialist to do the job.

With some trepidation I met the staff. Would they be hostile? No. My only task was to convince them that they were sitting on stories. The more positive the stories we pushed out, the quicker the profile of the school would improve.

My teaching credentials - I taught English and drama for 15 years - reduced any residual staff suspicions. I then persuaded them that a school can be a goldmine of good material.

After that I seemed to be trusted to get the right angle on things. Only occasionally did I have to point out that not everything a school thinks is exciting is likely to grab public attention. For instance, few local people showed interest in extended coverage of mathematics challenges, or changes to the style of parents' evenings. Or maybe it was the way I told them.

My job was made easier by Morton's decision to build on its existing strengths in the arts, and to go for specalist art college status as part of its regeneration. Arts stories are always colourful and lively; they make good copy and good photo opportunities. Ghanaian dancers, Japanese drummers and drama events all helped this.

This type of colourful story got a real boost when the school appointed an arts initiative officer who came with a background in cabaret, theatre and television. We got a lot of media coverage when she commissioned a writer-in-residence to write a play with pupils, staff, parents and governors.

Finding an angle is the key. This can pose problems, especially for a well-worn topic. For example, every summer, pupils in Year 11 take up the Kennedy Challenge (the late US president urged young people to undertake a tough physical endeavour) by walking 50 miles without rest - a daunting and newsworthy venture you would think. But not when it is happening for umpteenth time.

However, we found a new angle from a chance remark. A pupil was doing the walk with her grandfather who had completed it while a pupil at the school and was rising to the challenge a second time. We got the coverage.

My brief to promote the positive led to some interesting decisions. Morton, like many failing schools, had problems with attendance. However, a string of measures had rectified this - a success story. But this was one we kept close to our chests. We felt that releasing this particular piece of news would highlight the truancy, rather than our success at solving it.

Later, the school introduced what it called "the third session", a programme of after-school activities and courses ranging from karate to ceramics, coursework to childcare. More than 300 children signed on. Suppressing a smile, I submitted the headline: "Morton pupils won't go home". An obvious eye-catcher, given past history.

The school was taken out of special measures in December last year and parents' confidence is gradually returning.

Last year it expected 80 pupils in Year 7 and got 97. This year the intake is expected to reach 140. It's good to feel part of this change.

Helen Horne is a freelance media consultantemail: horne@jonfarm.freeserve.

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