Smile please! You're in the news again

27th May 2005 at 01:00
The media have grown increasingly fascinated with schools over the past 20 years, says Hugh Dougherty

It hardly seems 20 years ago that I sat before the late, great Harry Dutch, head of public relations for the former Strathclyde Regional Council. It was my first day as press officer for education, and, as Harry handed me a contact book for schools, community education centres, careers offices and further education colleges - some 2,000 educational establishments, stretching from Ballantrae in the south to Tiree in the north - he gave me my instructions.

They were simple. "Hugh", he thundered, "Eddie Miller, the director of education, wants a much higher profile for education and that's why we've hired you. Now, take this book, get out there, get to know the territory and fill your notebook with education stories" - adding, as only Harry could, as he looked at my shell-shocked face: "Give it all priority!"

And give it priority I did. There was a lot to learn, divisional education officers (each almost a territorial director in his own right) to meet, an army of education officers and the redoubtable and most able Malcolm Green, the powerful education chairman (yet to be converted to a chair in those less politically correct days).

He was a great ally, and was more than willing to dress up in a variety of guises at my behest for photocalls. These efforts included a bus conductor to launch an advertising bus for Cardonald College, a chef, an old-fashioned dominie at Scotland Street School Museum and, most amazing off all, a complete tree to illustrate environmental education. It certainly got him and education noticed by the media, even if some at Strathclyde HQ didn't entirely approve.

These were pioneering times for educational media relations, and I was hissed at by lecturers in a college which now spends millions on marketing when I suggested that we had to publicise their wares. I was mocked by some of the very old-fashioned heidies that I addressed, and one even told me that they would shut her school if it appeared in the paper. Truly it was missionary work.

I have since dealt with everything from a school murder and its awful aftermath to the incredible Brandon Lee, the man who came back to Bearsden Academy posing as a 17-year-old. That episode led to interviews with Japanese radio, since when I have believed that anything can, and does, happen in education. Nothing is too incredible for a press enquiry.

Over the years, the media have become even more fascinated with schools, and teachers are supposed to keep the weans quiet, learning, interested, developed as model citizens, and drug and booze free, as well as chaste, when no one else can achieve this with them. And, if teachers can't do all that, they'll be held to account by the media and sundry politicians of all hues.

I have seen trends come and go and computers arrive. I can tell you the Munn and Dunning difference between summative and formative assessment; actually explain to a news desk what an Intermediate I is, and the difference between Credit, General and Foundation; and even recall the day that the media invented bullying as a phenomenon.

Mike Ritchie, one-time education correspondent of the Daily Record - most papers had education corrs in those days - phoned me to ask if I knew of any good cases of bullying, as his editor's kid was being bullied at school and the paper was setting up a helpline. The rest is history, for the Record made education policy out of an issue.

I have seen career-making initiatives by the score come and go: TVEI (technical and vocational education initiative) secondments, and a million short-life working parties. The miracle, through it all, is that pupils and an ageing teaching force have remained remarkably resilient and enthusiastic.

But I can't understand why kids still dog it in full uniform outside their schools; why they always stand on the top deck of a school bus; and why the wee ned and hairy is always with us, displaying the most outrageous examples of teenage fashion and choosing to litter their carry-out lunch right outside the front door of their school's greatest critic, who invariably phones the local paper to complain.

After two decades as an education press officer, I am still learning and fascinated by the sheer breadth and variety of education. The media are equally fascinated, and schools are in the front line of press attention, with unofficial league tables, bullying, additional support needs in mainstream and the never-ending and tedious attack on Catholic schools which is as common now as it was 20 years ago.

My job can be demanding and abrasive at times. But I'll confess that something has never changed over the past two decades: if a primary class sings for me when I'm in a school, I'm moved by their wonderful enthusiasm.

For enthusiasm is what I've found at all levels over the past 20 years at the heart of education itself. And that has been the best bit of all.

Hugh Dougherty is public relations manager with East Renfrewshire Council.

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