Press here for attention;Briefing;Analysis;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
While some education pressure groups campaign at grassroots level, others are forging relations with the media. But, says Jon Slater, sometimes it's hard to see who is using whom.

FOR ministers - like teachers - having someone else tell you how to do your job is an occupational hazard. They are beset on all sides by interest and campaign groups intent on getting their preoccupations into policy.

At the Treasury, Gordon Brown is told to keep spending tight by the suits from the City, while the public services plead for more. Deputy prime minister John Prescott is told to boost public transport by environmental activists but to build more roads by the car lobby, while successive agriculture ministers have struggled to keep both farmers and consumers happy.

But few ministers get a bigger ear-full than David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary. Every day when he reads the papers, he is bombarded by people urging him to scrap or save grammar schools, to concentrate on the 3Rs or to broaden the curriculum and expand sex education (or cut it back).

This situation will provoke little sympathy from teachers who are fed up with having their daily work directed by diktat from Sanctuary Buildings. But it would be a mistake to ignore it.

Apart from the possible direct influence on policy-makers, pressure groups who get their point across in the papers set the tone of the education debate.

Voters with only a passing interest in education are likely to have their views coloured by what they read.

The alphabet soup of education pressure groups includes a variety of different organisations. Unions, such as the National Union of Teachers, represent the interests of teachers and lecturers; employers' organisations, such as the Association of Colleges, put across managers' views; and the Local Government Association fights the councils' corner.

All these groups attempt to influence policy by responding to government consultations, running campaigns and maintaining a media profile. But they can all be seen as standing up for vested interest or being part of the educational "establishment".

However, the world of education is also home to a number of campaign groups whose views get substantial media exposure but whose constituency is less obvious.

Groups such as the Campaign for State Education (CASE), the Campaign for Real Education and the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations provide platforms for those with strong views on education to promote their ideas.

These organisations are often quoted in newspapers - in many cases to back up a specific paper's editorial line. So who are these pressure groups, what do they believe in and who do they represent?

Most are born out of a desire to push for changes to the education system or to resist perceived threats to the status quo. A good example of the latter is the number of local "Save our grammar schools" campaigns that have sprung up in areas that still retain selection.

Although these groups are unlikely to have much of a direct national impact, they will hope to influence the debate locally through lobbying parents and the media.

However, most national groups push for change.

CASE was set up 30 years ago to push for high-quality state education for all children.

Membership is open to all those with an interest in education and CASE has been heavily involved in the campaign to end selection, and also in promoting parents' role in schools.

Margaret Tulloch, the group's spokesperson, believes that organisations such as CASE can make a difference but that it is a long-term process.

"We try to set the agenda rather than respond to someone else's," she says. "We try to inform the debate and produce information that people who have similar concerns can use to exert influence."

But the Campaign for Real Education takes a different approach. It concentrates on getting its message on the curriculum and moral issues across in the media.

"We think that the media are one of the best ways to influence policy. If you get public opinion on your side, you are half way there," said Nick Seaton, the group's spokesman.

The organisation scored a spectacular success, via the Daily Mail, earlier this year. Within 24 hours of a front-page story complaining of the absence of marriage from the curriculum, the omission was rectified.

However, there is a question mark over who is really dictating the agenda.

Although journalists are always on the look-out for good stories, they are often under pressure from their editor to find news which backs up the paper's editorial line.

"We do put out press releases and hold press conferences but when you get in the papers you're often reacting to other people's agenda," said CASE's Margaret Tulloch.

And Mr Seaton admits that it is easier to get your views into the media when they fit in with the paper's editorial stance.

Pressure groups can shout all they want but they need a medium to get their message across. While some people may be concerned about the legitimacy of campaign groups and the prominence given to their views, this is missing the point.

Tom Bentley, director of Demos think tank and a former adviser to David Blunkett, believes that the media play an important role in policy making.

"The media have a very strong influence. As public interest in education has grown the space given to the prejudices of media commentators has also increased," he said.

"Obviously the skill with which pressure groups present their views through the media is important. A good example of a group who have done that is the Pre-school Learning Alliance."

With a government obsessed by its media coverage and anxious to please certain sections of the press, newspapers are taking advantage of the chance to get their message across.

And if you want to make your voice heard in education your best chance is to fit in with theirs.



Aims: An end to grammar schools, a real voice for parents.

Members: 1,000 parents, teachers and others interested in education.

Recent success: Campaigned for low class sizes in primaries in the early Nineties.

Media profile: Highmedium - good on grammar schools Campaign for Real Education Aims: Traditional curriculum, choice for parents Members: 3,000 supporters mostly parents Recent success: Getting marriage into the curriculum.

Media profile: High - especially in the up-market tabloids.

Pre-school Learning Alliance Aim: Promoting pre-schools Members: 17,500 pre schools and individuals Recent successes: Playdough to Plato campaign won a pound;500,000 grant from ministers to help keep pre-schools open. The campaign included a painting competition for MPs.

Media profile: Medium - has declined slightly since the end of vouchers

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