Trying to teach while trampled by the `Trojan Horse'

13th June 2014 at 01:00
How to cope when your school is under siege from the press

Like thousands of teenagers around the country, the anxious cohort of Year 11 students at Park View School in Birmingham have spent this week sitting their GCSEs, the most important exams these 16-year-olds have ever faced.

But this is not the only reason they have to feel anxious. Their school, like 20 others in the same city, has found itself in the media spotlight. In response to claims of an alleged "Trojan Horse" plot by radical Islamists to take over schools in the city, Ofsted was sent in to investigate. This week it published its reports; five schools were placed into special measures amid claims that not enough had been done to protect pupils from "radicalisation and extremism".

One of them was Park View School, which was rated as outstanding by the inspectorate just two years ago. Assistant principal Lee Donaghy told TES that students, greeted with hordes of television cameras and journalists camped outside the school gates, had been left feeling worried and confused.

"It's been difficult," he said. "They're unsure whether they're allowed to speak to journalists, whether they should, whether they will be filmed and find themselves on the television.

"I think we've been providing quite a good shelter [from the publicity], but it seems to have seeped through to them now. Suddenly we've got some very anxious young people. We've got pupils who've come into school today and asked questions like: `Will we be able to wear the hijab?', `Will we be able to cover our heads if we choose to?', Will the school close?' and `Where will we go if the school closes?' Some of them we can answer, some we can't. There's a tremendous sense of uncertainty."

But with students and teachers stoically trying to look no further than their next lesson - "It's remarkably calm; nobody has freaked out, nobody has had a meltdown" - Mr Donaghy said that the other prevailing emotion among the pupils was "puzzled incredulity".

"They're left wondering why people are saying these things about our school. Why all the fuss? They just thought they went to a normal school," he said.

The political aspects of this particular story are proving especially enticing to the press, but education stories are always popular - and emotive. So just how should a school caught at the centre of a media storm approach the situation? Is it safer to rely on a charm offensive or should it take a more defensive stance?

Louise Jaggs, group managing director of public relations firm On Tap Communications, believes that the Birmingham schools should now stop fanning the flames. "They can't fight the government with all guns blazing on this," she said. "By going on the attack, they won't automatically be seen as the local hero but could be positioned as resistant to positive change."

And the same held true for other schools in a similar situation, she said, adding that many parents remained fiercely supportive of institutions that had been caught up in negative publicity and could be used to sway public opinion very effectively.

"What would be more powerful would be for pupils and parents and members of the community to post their comments on social media in support of good things the school has done, and counteract some of the criticisms with their own experiences," she said. "Let them say it for you rather than managing it yourself."

Several of the Birmingham schools are understood to have approached PR agencies to help present their side of the story. Leading PR agent Mark Borkowski said it was essential for any school that found itself faced with public criticism to gradually "steer and shift" the media narrative away from the controversy towards its positive achievements.

"Are there good news stories in the school?" he said. "Are there pupils who have been developed or gone on to great things? You have got to look at the assets that are available and present them as a counter to the story. But you've got to look at marginal gains; you can't make the switch [to positive media coverage] overnight."

It was important, he added, for under-siege schools not to regard their critics as the enemy. "You have to address your detractors," he said. "The haters are not the enemy, they are people you have got to win round."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said it was important for school leaders who found themselves in the eye of a media storm to seek external support, either from their union or PR professionals.

"Not everybody in schools is trained in media relations," he said, "but heads are confident, articulate people who, with the right advice, can handle it. But they need to test their ideas out on somebody. It can be a very difficult situation for a school; teachers can get very upset when there are reporters outside the school. That's not ideal for young people."

Mr Hobby also stressed the importance of being open about ongoing issues: "We advise members to have a clear conversation with their community about what's going on; that can often calm things down."

Headteacher Joan McVittie had direct experience of her school being the focus of public opprobrium when she took over as head of Woodside High School in North London eight years ago. It was then languishing near the bottom of the league tables and had a reputation as one of the capital's worst schools.

The key to improving the school's reputation, Ms McVittie said, was the pupils. "The kids wanted the school to be seen in a different way by the community. They improved their behaviour, some of them monitored the behaviour of others.

"The community need to know that if there are problems, you will sort them out. We used to get some negative publicity but, as things have improved, we've worked hard with the local press to get some good news stories in."

Mr Donaghy, meanwhile, has no intention of taking the criticism his school has faced lying down. "You can imagine how much worse it was for us being demonised essentially for doing what the community here wants and giving their children a bloody good education," he said.

Values added?

In the wake of Ofsted's investigation into the alleged Islamification of Birmingham state schools, education secretary Michael Gove announced that all schools in England would have to "actively promote clear British values".

Every school would be expected to teach the values of "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths," he told Parliament.

But critics described the move as a "knee-jerk reaction". John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT teaching union, said teachers had a "fundamental role" to play in maintaining the stability of their community but that their voices needed to be heard.

"Michael Gove has ignored their views and opted for a knee-jerk reaction rather than holding a proper debate," Mr Bangs said.


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