Too hot for the press

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Once a week in due season (our seasons being rough approximations to term time) I have the honour of fronting the Radio 4 programme, The Learning Curve. I say fronting, because there is a hyperactive and learned team of education journalists editing it, who have protected me from many a howler and engage me in frequent and spirited arguments.

But one thing I have noticed down the years is something that this newspaper must also feel, to its irritation. Weekly education specialists have in some ways a lousy deal these days: there are too many tanks on their once peaceful lawn. They have their headlines regularly snatched from them by excitable newsmongers, for education has become front-page, rabble-rousing mainstream news.

If you are in your twenties, you may not realise that this was not always so. You have grown up surrounded by tabloid rows about everything from Baker Days to literacy hours, nursery curricula to top-up fees. You have seen education secretaries morph into high-profile Cabinet stars, chief inspectors into divas. You have learned not to be surprised that the word Ofsted is considered exciting and universally comprehensible enough to be put in big black capitals, or that a Clark Kent figure with a name like Tomlinson gets as famous as Jordan.

But I am over 50 now, and I can remember quite clearly that when I was a young reporter, education barely caused a flicker on the news Richter scale. There was a row about comprehensivisation, all right, but it faded once people got used to it, and only a few voices chuntered in the wilderness. As late as 1976, education stories were covered only by the most earnest, Guardianish media, and at times you could almost hear the yawns. Even A-level results were permitted to come out without the front pages carrying photos of girls in strappy tops, screaming. The general attitude was: "Kids go to school, right? You put them in there and eventually they come out, having learned stuff. End of story."

Truants got in the papers a bit, and one of my early assignments as a radio reporter was to "go out and find some of these kids who beat their teachers up like the NUT bloke says they do". On local radio in the Seventies I got interested in the vast changes of the 10 years since I left school, and made a series called "It wasn't like this..." in which I tried to explain stuff like new maths and why it was apparently possible to do drama without reading any plays. But it was uphill work persuading even the local station to broadcast it. Education was, well, dull. And so was environment: another thing people under 30 might not believe is how much the nation used to snigger about the House of Lords having debates about endangered newts and otters.

The environmental movement changed all that; but the increase in the perceived interestingness of schools came about in the early Thatcher years. After years of dozy bipartisanship, suddenly government plunged its arms in up to the elbow with wild talk of a "core curriculum" and a lot of bashing of teachers (perceived, rather startlingly to some placid old persons with leather elbows, to be all dangerous lefties). Unions called strikes, parents were inconvenienced and outraged, and the media realised that in the world of education lay an overlooked goldmine: a huge, emotive source of rows, rivalries, theories, fogeyish reminiscence and pictures of pretty kids. In short, copy. A shower of intiatives and instructions descended on schools, opinion-mongers weighed in, and the pace has grown hotter ever since.

Which is good. I think. Well, mainly it is good. Schools, colleges and universities are massively important to individuals and to society. They also soak up a lot of tax revenue, so we have a right to know what they are doing with the money (stretching it, mainly). There is no harm in debating what education is, and what we want it to do. But there is a snag, and not only for weekly education journalists, who after dedicating themselves for years to remembering the difference between Natfhe and NASUWT, MIDYIS and YELLIS, find their top story regularly pre-empted by red-tops and daily newshounds.

No: the real snag is that today, the things which the media report loudly and emotionally are the things governments get anxious about. And when there are elections pending, the anxiety rises to the point of panic. No one makes calm, thoughtful, long-term decisions when their heart is hammering and their mouth is dry.

So it is a pity that Tomlinson had to be responded to just now, with a sticky election campaign under way and everybody watching. Did you really, ever, seriously think they would agree to bin A-levels two months before a ballot?

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