Spellbound by New Labour's spin magic;Briefing;Analysis

28th May 1999 at 01:00
BBC correspondent Mike Baker, says Millbank's unprecedented control of the news agenda has left grassroots educators without a voice; and, below, he profiles David Blunkett's personal spin-doctor.

The range of sources for education stories in the media is too narrow and dominated by the Government. Teachers, professional educators and university specialists have little influence on the news agenda. This dominance of Government sources has increased considerably in recent years, particularly since the last general election.

If the above thesis is correct -and research is needed to be sure - one effect has been to limit public debate on education policy. This impacts on policy formation since politicians are swayed by their perception of how policies will play in the media.

When I put this view to policy experts at the Institute of Education recently, it was obvious that there is great frustration at the difficulty the education profession has in influencing policy.

This was not always the case. Many major policies in the past emerged from grassroots initiatives. Comprehensive school reorganisation and the growth of middle schools are two examples. Curriculum initiatives were once the preserve of the professionals' "secret garden".

The shift in media attention is easily explained. Journalists tend to be most interested in the views of those who have power. Once the power to make education policy was shared between central government, local government and the teaching profession. Today no one would suggest these three are equal partners.

A quick, unscientific, analysis of my own education stories on BBC radio and television proved revealing. A count of stories on Radio 4 morning news bulletins over a three-month period, showed almost half came from central government sources (I hasten to add that this did not make them pro-government stories).

By contrast, only two stories came from teacher unions and both involved reaction to a government initiative. Only one story came from a local education authority initiative and none was based on the actions of an individual school.

A similar analysis of my stories on BBC television news showed that, from a total of 15 stories on the Six O'Clock News, no fewer than 11 were based on initiatives from the Department for Education and Employment. There was just one story from a LEA and none from teachers' organisations. One story came from a piece of educational research.

I suspect a similar pattern would be found in the main news pages of national newspapers. I also suspect that other broadcast media organisations, especially those without education specialists, are even more skewed towards the Government's agenda.

Yet the shift in power alone may not explain the present Government's dominance of the media agenda. I would ask two further questions: Is the media ignoring alternative policy ideas? Or is the system now so centralised that it has lost all its grassroots' originality?

Grassroots innovation does sometimes make the news. Surrey attracted a lot of media interest with its innovative plans to invite an outside body to run a "failing" school, for example.

But where are the big innovations and ideas coming from? Perhaps schools have had so much change thrust upon them that they have no appetite for further innovation? That would be a pity.

It is not only schools and local authorities which are quiet. The "think tanks" now speak more softly and less frequently on education. The Black Paper authors, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Social Market Foundation used to get lots of attention for the radical ideas which laid the foundations for Conservative legislation. Where are their centre-left equivalents today? Leading pro-Labour think tanks such as Demos and the Institute of Public Policy Research may be influential, but are arguably too dependent on ministerial patronage and thus serve only to underline the Government's dominance of the policy agenda.

This Government is very adept at placing stories. Peter Mandelson may be out of the limelight but all of Labour's spin doctors learned their trade at his feet. Getting Tony Blair into a school on the day of a news announcement tends to ensure coverage.

The way issues play, or might play, in the media certainly affects policy. The complex arrangements for ballots on the future of grammar schools (so complicated that few are likely to happen) owe much to the spin doctors' wish to avoid a prolonged press campaign to "save grammar schools".

Sometimes the strategy backfires as it did with the recent launch of measures for inner-city education. Government sources selectively briefed the Sunday newspapers ahead of the formal announcement and the resulting stories focused on the plans to "cream off " the top 10 per cent of pupils for special tuition.

It was intended to be a reassuring message for middle-class parents anxious about sending their bright children to comprehensives, but it managed to sound like the return of academic selection.

In fact the measures, when announced, had nothing to do with selection and went much further than special help for the ablest pupils. But by then the tone of the debate had been set by the papers.

An example of successful spin was the wide coverage of the Prime Minister's comment that "when I look at some inner-city schools, it is no wonder parents feel they have to move their children out and some feel they have to make other arrangements".

This view was dropped, quite deliberately I am sure, into a radio interview I conducted at Downing Street. The Government's press machine moved into overdrive and delivered a transcript of the interview to the newspapers to ensure maximum coverage of these very revealing views.

I am not suggesting that teachers or schools can challenge the media access of Downing Street. But surely the teaching profession's voice should be heard promoting policy ideas rather than always reacting defensively to government initiatives?.

What are the possible answers? Perhaps the General Teaching Council will allow a high profile forum for the profession, although, as it will be a creature of government, I doubt it.

Can university researchers make media coverage, and public debate, as important an aim as the next Research Assessment Exercise? Too often fascinating findings dribble out, without a release time and without a formal launch.

Is there a role for a professional PR body to represent state schools in the way the Independent Schools Information Service so effectively serves private schools?

There are attempts to do something to organise the voice of the profession. The recently-launched Future Education Network, a group of teachers, lecturers and academics, hopes to give the profession a voice.

If organisations like these can publicise grassroots ideas there would be a "ground-up" view to compete with the "top-down" government version. This could only improve the debate.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent. This article is based on a seminar given in his role as visiting professor at the Institute of Education, London

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