Press distortions confuse debate;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Perverse reporting and comment by the daily press, especially The Scotsman, distorts educational debate. A case in point is last week's launch of secondary school targets.

The Scotsman complained that parents are not allowed to know the preliminary targets that have been set for schools and are subject to revision after study by schools and local authorities. How could parents choose a school if they did not know the targets?

But criteria based on existing conditions and performance can tell nothing about a school's aspirations and determination to improve. Come back in three years, and then parents could reasonably be asked to consider a school's success or failure in meeting its goals.

The inability of the press to get to grips with reality would not matter if it did not send the wrong messages. These do not affect the wider public, who retain a healthy scepticism about the promises of ministers and the protests of commentators.

The difficulty is that opposition politicians are constantly scratching around for material with which to criticise government. They latch onto the media's misrepresentations and a political campaign appears out of nothing. Because it is voiced by those with a national constituency - SNP, Liberal Democrat or Conservative - the campaign attains a certain credibility.

School targets deserve scrutiny. They are an imperfect tool, though better than league tables. If they are attacked on grounds that are easily refuted, their real weaknesses will be disguised. Ministers rail against the education coverage of daily newspapers, but they should be happy that decoys are so often set up to be shot down.

Then the real questions go unexamined. And for teachers who have to live in the real world such skewed debate is worthless.

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