On steady course in turbulent times

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Former TESS editor Willis Pickard charts the eventful progress of the paper from its infancy to the present day

The TESS was born of an age of rapid change and expansion. Its birth year - 1965 - also gave us the Primary Memorandum and the General Teaching Council.

The Robbins report had signalled rapid growth in universities. The Brunton report had tackled vocational education, as have many initiatives since.

The recently elected Wilson Government was preparing for comprehensive secondaries and faced an apparently unbridgeable gap between pupil numbers and the supply of teachers.

In London, the Times Publishing Company, owner of The TES, was looking for new commercial opportunities although within a year it would pass out of the hands of its long-standing proprietor, Lord Astor. It was he who came to Edinburgh to preside at the launch of The TES's Scottish offshoot, and Colin MacLean, the first editor, recalls that he brought shortbread for the new staff in the small office up a stair in Edinburgh's Hanover Street.

There had long been a token nod in the columns of The TES to the distinctive Scottish education system, but the new edition carried hopes of more readers and more advertising, especially of jobs. MacLean had been working on the letters page of The Times and was not an educational journalist. So to ensure that the new paper attained the stature of its parent among the educational establishment, an adviser was appointed, W.B. Inglis, principal of Moray House College of Education and a frequent contributor to The TES. The arrangement continued until 1971 when Inglis died while on a visit to Hanover Street.

The new edition rapidly made its reputation for extensive and dependable reporting and sage comment. MacLean became a critic of the stuffiness of educational decision-making and he supported liberal causes such as the abolition of corporal punishment. But the crises in industrial relations in the Seventies that brought strikes to the classroom had their much sharper consequences in the newspaper industry.

The TESS from the outset changed a number of pages of The TES to accommodate Scottish material and was printed with the parent paper on Times presses. Frequently clashes between management and the print unions led to pages being dropped and some weeks there was no paper at all.

In 1978, the managers, now the Canadian-based Thomson group, stopped production altogether for what turned out to be almost a year. The editorial and advertising staff kept their jobs but production employees were let go. In Hanover Street, it was tedious not knowing when the dispute would end. The secretary made her point by bringing in a tortoise which ate the office geranium.

The lost year could not have come at a worse time for The TESS. It had gradually put on circulation, stimulated in particular by the need for secondary teachers to follow the fortunes of three committee reports in 1977 - Munn on the S3-S4 curriculum, Dunning on assessment and Pack on truancy and indiscipline (concomitants, many argued, of the leaving age raised five years previously). When the paper came back on the streets after the 1979 election, it was hard to re-establish the readership that had been built up.

By this time Colin MacLean, after 12 years' editorship, had gone off to book publishing and I had been appointed from The Scotsman where I was features and literary editor. I was able to start early because The Scotsman was wracked by a strike and did not need me. Eleven months later, there was again no paper for me to work on.

I had hoped to build on my predecessor's efforts to expand the range of the paper as the prospect of devolution brought excitement to Scottish culture and society. MacLean had organised the first conference in Scotland on devolution, featuring Rene Levesque, the charismatic leader of the Quebec separatists. But back in business with the 1979 referendum having failed and Mrs Thatcher in power there was a refocusing on mundane matters such as teachers' salaries and conditions.

The early Eighties were difficult in other ways. The Thomson owners found that the lay-off had solved little and, with production still a nightly hazard, had sold The Times, Sunday Times and the supplements to Rupert Murdoch's News International.

The education world wondered what he would do with the supplements, and Murdoch was summoned before a committee of MPs that dealt with English education. We in Hanover Street wanted to know about the future of The TESS but there were no Scottish MPs on the committee. So we persuaded a Tyneside member of Scottish lineage to ask our new owner about The TESS, and Murdoch said the undertakings he was giving about The TES applied to the Scottish edition, provided it broke even.

The arrival in stages of electronic methods of production was a boon to The TESS which, when I started, still depended on freelance telex operators "re-keying" the copy that I and my colleagues had typed, only for the whole operation to be repeated on linotype machines in London. No wonder the error count was high.

But Murdoch's confrontation with the unions meant that although the supplements were not directly affected by the battles outside the printing plant, all News International titles were met with hostility. Many public libraries stopped stocking The TESS.

Fortunately, editorial challenges and opportunities compensated for problems outwith our control. There were scoops, such as revealing a government critique of P4 and P7 teaching. Whenever a weary Scottish Office press spokesman phoned to seek the source of a leak to the paper, adding "I know you won't say but I have been told to ask", we knew we were doing our job.

Good relations with the key decision-makers in education are important and there were few serious problems, but it is a constant challenge for specialist journalists to keep asking the difficult questions when dealing day-in, day-out with ministers, directors of education and their advisers who are congenial contacts. A retired director of education did not see the funny side of a comment in Jotter and successfully sued for pound;5,000.

I was inordinately proud of a front-page report one year, when April 1 happened to coincide with publication day and I claimed that the Scottish Office was proposing to use the rest of the alphabet to add to the A-E levels of 5-14, culminating in a PhD. In the Scottish Office, the date was not at first noticed and there was a flurry of inquiry. The qualifications ladder has since delivered almost exactly as I had flippantly suggested.

As daily papers expanded and quality Sundays were established in Scotland, The TESS stuck closely to its educational brief, abandoning, for example, efforts to cover the whole cultural scene and instead highlighting arts activities by and for young people.

Although circulation and advertising revenue slowly recovered from the crisis-ridden years, there was a difference between The TES and The TESS.

South of the border, anyone looking for a teaching post had to consult The TES. Here, most vacancies were advertised in The Scotsman andor The Herald as well as The TESS - from Strathclyde Region, covering half of the country, we got only a few senior posts.

Then in 1996, 12 education authorities became 32 and The TESS persuaded all of them to publicise their vacancies through our columns. Readership rose as well as advertising revenue.

Over the years, the paper's emphasis has changed. It devotes less space to the minutiae of administration and much more to what is going on in the classroom. The Scotland Plus section focused attention on school-based practice and innovation years before the Executive started claiming that national change best emanates from individual teachers.

In 2001, after nearly 23 years as editor and two flittings - the more recent to premises in South St Andrew Street - I retired and was happy to hand over to Neil Munro, my deputy for all that time.

The Holyrood Parliament has focused attention on education in a way impossible at Westminster (witness the amount of legislation starting with the 2000 Standards in Scotland's Schools Act). The TESS is more important than ever as an independent analyst and commentator.

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