Only in Fleet St do boys still wear caps

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Peter Wilby kicks off a new series that will look at how other professions perceive teachers. This week: the press

During my 20 years working on Sunday newspapers, one question would bring me close to physical violence. "What do you do the rest of the week?"

people would ask. The assumption was that I needed to work only on Saturdays.

The equivalent assumption about teachers is that they work only when they actually have children in front of them. So their working week is, at most, 25 hours (but they get all those free periods, you know!) and 13 weeks off a year. Just as outsiders often think an article takes only as long to write as it does to read, so they think a lesson comes instantly out of the teacher's head.

Journalists and teachers ought, therefore to understand each other. Alas, they don't and never have. To teachers, the press represents everything they deplore: the ephemeral, the sensational, the trivial. To journalists, teachers represent qualities they despise: caution, doggedness, discretion.

Journalists live in an unpredictable world of capricious hiring and firing, while teachers, at least by repute, enjoy predictable career paths and almost complete immunity from the sack. Journalists chase women and get drunk on strong beer and champagne. Teachers live dull suburban lives and drink sherry.

Journalists work strange hours and travel to exotic locations. Teachers get home in time for tea and occasionally take children to France (they get a free holiday, you know). To all this, you should add the assumption of most journalists, particularly those working for the cheap press, that most of their readers hated school and nurse grudges against teachers, and perhaps also against the swots who eventually became teachers.

We are dealing in stereotypes here, and newspapers love stereotypes which, in education coverage, have barely changed in 50 years. Look at the cartoons: schoolboys are still in short trousers and caps, teachers still wear mortar-boards and wield canes. Teachers are expected to be remote, forbidding figures. They are simultaneously loathed because of this archaic stereotype and despised because they now fail to conform to it.

This is one reason why the press attitude to teachers has got worse over the 35 years since I first started writing about education. As a recent Sutton Trust survey reminded us, most senior national newspaper journalists come from privileged backgrounds. Nearly all went to either fee-charging or grammar schools. They have little grasp of why schools have changed from the traditional institutions they remember and why comprehensives cannot reproduce the ethos of academically selective schools. Moreover, a high proportion of leading columnists live within a few square miles of each other in north London, which host enclaves of both exceptional deprivation and exceptional affluence. The capital's transport links allow middle-class parents to escape to elite schools, inside and outside the state sector, leaving behind "sink schools". This gives them a distorted view of what most comprehensives are like. Some of the most left-wing journalists I know pay school fees, or intend to do so. Others bus (or taxi) their children to a covertly selective state school, while making a fuss about how they didn't "go private". I can think of only a handful who chose a conventional council comprehensive.

Education correspondents tend to get around and therefore know state schools aren't nearly as dire as the north London middle-classes think.

Unfortunately, they have little influence - and far less than they had 20 years ago - over a newspaper's comment pages.

While the specialist education sections usually provide balanced analysis, the columnists - these days, the main opinion-formers in the press - go their own merry way. Few have been specialist education writers, and even those that were for brief periods (such as the Guardian's Peter Preston or the Spectator's Matthew D'Ancona) don't seem to recall it with much pleasure. So even liberal-minded papers such as the Guardian and the Independent quite often present ill-informed and prejudiced views.

Perhaps the biggest problem for teachers, though, is that we live in the age of celebrity culture. Newspapers love celebrities whom they can build up and then pull down. Even accountants can be celebrities now if they make enough money. Teachers, like tax inspectors and actuaries, struggle to make it into the glitterati. Filling in government forms and wiping runny noses just isn't very glamorous.

What we need are more teachers on Big Brother - and I mean proper schoolteachers of history and physics, not 20-year-old dance teachers.

Either that, or somebody has to persuade Jade Goody to enrol for teacher training.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman and Independent on Sunday

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