Story has not changed, even after 25 years

14th May 2010 at 01:00

Twenty-five years ago, I sat down for the first time behind Strathclyde Region's education press desk with a manual typewriter and phone to deal with the media needs of 1,200 schools, 20 further education colleges, God knows how many community education teams and the careers service - not forgetting the fearsome director, Eddie Miller, and a phalanx of divisional education officers spread across an area stretching from Tiree to Ballantrae. Then there were councillors and the media itself.

It was daunting at a time when most teachers regarded teaching as a private occupation with the press kept at bay. Not that the press was at bay, for then, as now, whenever politicians craved attention, they went straight for education.

It was an educational world of more militant unions, scant mention of attainment and a plethora of projects such as the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. My job, according to the inspirational late Harry Dutch, the region's head of public relations, was to get out there, get the stories and place Strathclyde's education service firmly in the media in a positive light.

Luckily, I had an ally in education convener Councillor Dr Malcolm Green, who was ready and willing to raise establishment eyebrows by dressing up for photocalls I organised to explain education through the media. He famously appeared as a bus conductor to publicise Cardonald College's advertising bus, as Rasputin to welcome a Russian school and as a tree to push the green agenda well before its time. We got coverage galore.

It was revolutionary but pioneering work. One teacher told me that I could publicise his school if I could get the staffroom boiler to work, and, while I was at it, could they have new curtains? Another told me that it was none of the media's business when one of his pupils, who it turned out had a hole in the heart, dropped dead after being given a mild shock as part of a physics experiment.

Getting good news out got easier as the years went by, but one of the aspects of my work, valued most by schools, has been crisis handling. That has included everything from the murder of a pupil at Glasgow's Whitehill Secondary to Brandon Lee, the bogus 17-year-old pupil of Bearsden Academy. That, in particular, taught me to believe anything, however unlikely it might seem, such as the day when I was told to hurry to the new Mearns Primary because the roof had just blown off or the day two pupils enrolled at the same school and turned out to be the Lockerbie bomber's children.

I've met superb pupils as well as some disturbingly evil ones, some inspired heidies, teachers and support staff, and some great directors and managers, especially East Renfrewshire's John Wilson, with whom it's been a privilege to work.

And the media now, as ever, wants to know about education and will probe it even more relentlessly than 25 years ago, thanks to an accelerated blame and litigation culture and hardened news values sharpened by attempts to reverse circulation decline.

It's been a privilege to have done my job. But one truth remains: schools are about pupils, teachers, support staff and parents. And they work usually superbly. That's the real story for the media today, as much as it was when I first sat behind that daunting desk quarter of a century ago.

Hugh Dougherty is public affairs manager at East Renfrewshire Council until Tuesday.

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