What do you say?

8th May 2009 at 01:00
A reporter is ringing and your inbox is filling. What starts as a serious, but manageable, school matter can quickly become tabloid fodder. How should you deal with the press?

When Landscore Primary School in Devon hit the headlines - accused of banning a five-year-old girl from talking about God - headteacher Gary Read responded with gusto.

He was off-site when his deputy phoned, advising him to get back to the school because a journalist from the Daily Telegraph had called. The journalist had received a tip-off after the young girl's mother, Jennie Cain - a receptionist at the school - sent an email to members of her church, allegedly saying her daughter had been banned from talking about God at school.

As soon as he could, Mr Read contacted the local authority press office, drew up a statement outlining the school's side of the story, sent it to the journalist and went home that night, content that his voice would be heard.

Only, when he woke the next day to find the story on the Daily Telegraph's front page and website, the coverage wasn't quite what he was expecting.

"The headlines read something like: `Mother in battle with school over Jesus ban' and `Primary school receptionist facing sack after daughter talks about Jesus to classmate'. And they featured a photo of the mother holding her crucifix pendant and looking upwards, with tears in her eyes. It was outrageous," he says. "Both headlines were lies - she didn't face the sack and the issue was over the allegation she made in her group email."

What actually happened, he says, was that the school told the pupil it's OK to talk about God, but not to tell fellow pupils they'll go to hell if they don't share the same beliefs.

He continues: "That was the first day, which was bad enough. But on the second day we started getting phone calls from everyone - from complete right-wing nutcases to the local press, ITV news and the BBC," he recalls.

Being a non-teaching head meant he had the time to defend his school's reputation - providing a level of retaliation that his opponents probably didn't expect.

The press attention came mainly by phone rather than reporters and photographers hanging around the school. But once the story broke, the school's phone rang non-stop for three days, to the point where a pre- recorded answerphone message had to be used.

Mr Read gave television and radio interviews, responded to every email and letter and lodged a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission against one newspaper's coverage. He even challenged the Archbishop of York who weighed into the debate. Suffice to say, the school got its side across.

But not all schools have the time, knowledge or resources to defend themselves as Landscore did. Smaller schools, those with teaching heads or those that simply don't see the need to respond to media attention can struggle when they find themselves in the media limelight.

"If we'd been a smaller, less-together school, with a less competent leadership, it's the sort of thing that can sink you," admits Mr Read.

Schools at the centre of a story that the Cambridge Evening News covered in 2006 weren't so forthcoming. When former reporter Ben Lee was asked during his time at the local paper to find out about a paedophile called Brian Davey who was convicted in 2006 of 27 attacks on young girls, not one of the 15 Cambridgeshire schools Davey had taught at would talk to the paper, said Mr Lee.

"Thankfully I was never asked to wait outside the school gates for teachers or parents to speak to. But phone calls to schools on a subject like this will more often than not scare the hell out of the people that answer the phone," Mr Lee reflects.

"When calling schools about sensitive subjects during my time at the paper some hung up on me as soon as I mentioned I was a reporter. I've been called all sorts of names by rude receptionists and obstructive dinner ladies. But I would always ring back straight away of course, so in the end the receptionist or secretary would have to put me in touch with the headteacher."

The paper was eventually referred to the county council press office for a statement on behalf of all the schools. Granted, this was a particularly sensitive subject and there were a number of schools involved, but Mr Lee believes this approach made the schools look worse than if they had responded directly.

Public relations experts normally advise that it is in a school's interest to respond to press requests. When education PR specialist Communitas guided one London school through a period of attention from the Daily Mail, it began by establishing the facts.

A teacher there had approached the Daily Mail to denounce standards of discipline in the school and to say she'd been attacked by two boys in the school corridor. The allegation came a few days after one of the school's pupils had been stabbed to death outside the school gates. "Working with the principal and deputy principal, we sought clarity on what had actually happened," says Alex Rowe, a consultant who works for Communitas.

"It became clear that the teacher had been accidentally pushed in a crowded corridor and that there were a number of witnesses to this. The school was concerned that the two separate incidents would be bundled together."

Communitas briefed journalists off the record. They also recommended that the principal offer himself for interview with the Evening Standard.

"The resulting story was well-balanced, which reflected the situation at the school accurately - there had been a one-off tragedy, but the school was popular with the community, well disciplined, well-resourced and with excellent student and parent support and participation," says Ms Rowe.

This worked because the school acted transparently, was clear about the facts and took a proactive approach to get the school's side of the story across, believes Ms Rowe. "By offering up the principal for an interview we helped the press and ensured that they had as much detail and information as they wanted."

Even when schools do respond to the media, their attempts at damage limitation aren't always immediately successful, particularly when expert advice is not sought in the first instance. King Fahad Academy in west London became famous in February 2007 when it faced a trial by media after a sacked teacher claimed the school was using a textbook that included racist and offensive material - referring to Jewish people as apes and Christians as pigs.

When the school's director, Dr Sumaya Alyusuf, agreed to face a grilling from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, she struggled to get her point across.

She also hadn't discussed removing the book with her management team and so refused to commit to doing so when asked by Mr Paxman - which made for uncomfortable viewing. "I can't withdraw them because they are a source and there's [sic] good chapters in them," was her answer on the programme.

But she had never been on TV before and only had hours to prepare. "He tried to intimidate me and I remained calm through that. He wanted to make the interview a sensational presentation, and he wasn't even listening to me. And he interrupted me several times," she said, speaking to Teachers TV later that year.

Dr Alyusuf said she felt the school had been treated unfairly because it wasn't approached to tell its side of the story. She argued that the offensive material was contained in a small footnote at the bottom of a page in a chapter that wasn't taught.

Dr Alyusuf did manage to generate some good publicity when she held a press conference informing the media that the offending chapters were being removed. And she arranged an "International Day" at the school, inviting people in to see what the school and its students were like in an attempt to rebuild the damaged relationship with the local community, (reports said one local shop had put up a sign saying pupils from the school were not welcome). The academy was later rated "good" by Ofsted for its teaching of religious and cultural diversity.

However well a school handles a media circus at the time, the experience can leave an unsavoury residue. "It's destabilising for the whole school to have negative media attention. An enormous amount of time and energy is taken up with dealing with the press and it can be demoralising for staff, students and parents to read negative stories about their school," says Ms Rowe.

But, unlikely as it may seem at the time, hindsight shows that being hounded by the press can benefit schools in the long-run, not least in providing the experience in how to handle similar situations in the future.

Mr Read has since offered to sit on a county working party charged with discussing how religion and faith should be handled in schools. "I don't think we should be shy of looking at that in quite a radical way. So hopefully, as a serving head with a view, I'll be able to use our recent experience to feed into that. And hopefully we'll end up with a much more pragmatic way of dealing with these things."

He counts a number of positive things to have come from Landscore's experience. "When I walk out in that playground now, I know all the parents are with us, they understand what we're about, and they were vocal enough to write to me and contact the local press. The staff have been brilliant, so it's been a bit like a three-month team-building exercise. And someone recently joked that other schools in the area with press dealings can call on me for advice."

Other schools that have made the headlines

  • George Tomlinson Primary School in London
    • Made the news last month when it emerged that a group of US Christian fundamentalists - labelled by the media as "the most hated family in America" - intended to picket the school after hearing it taught lessons as part of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender history month.

      • Willingdon Community School in East Sussex
        • Found itself in the spotlight in February when 13-year-old pupil Alfie Patten was accused of getting his girlfriend pregnant.

          • Holloway School in London
            • The school received attention from the press after 16-year-old student Ben Kinsella was stabbed to death during a night out with friends in June 2008.

              Dealing with the press

              • Take some time to get your facts straight. Journalists will want to know who, what, where, why and when
              • Identify someone to talk to the press. Usually one named person from the school should handle interviews
              • Consider calling on specialist advice - this may be from an agency or your council press office
              • Don't feel pressurised to answer reporters' questions immediately if you're not sure of the facts - it's fine to say that you need to get back to them
              • Keep your internal audiences - staff, governors and pupils - informed. It's better that they hear about what's going on from the school than reading about it over breakfast.
                • Advice from PR specialist Communitas.

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