When the media invades your school

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
The disappearance of two 10-year-old girls put Soham Village College on the front page of the newspapers, but it is also a place where happy pupils get results. And it's not the only school to have been put in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Hannah Frankel shows how heads can turn negative publicity into positive stories

Like many heads, Carin Taylor is extrovert, charismatic and engaging. So why do people stop in their tracks when they are introduced to her? Maybe it is because she is principal of Soham Village College in Cambridgeshire, a job she has now held for six months.

Soham: the mere word is so imbedded in the national psyche it barely necessitates explanation. The image of two young girls in matching Manchester United football shirts and a slender man with an impenetrable gaze embody the tragic story that broke in August 2002.

Over the past decade, it is hard to think of an event that has so completely captivated the public. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the 911 attacks were the lead stories in the national newspapers for seven days each. The disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman was front page news for 18 consecutive days. "We had the entire media parked out on the recreation ground," says Simon Cobby, spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council.

"There were all the local and national press, all the TV news channels, all the press agencies, everyone." Although the college was closed for the summer holidays at the time, disruption reoccurred the following November when Ian Huntley was found guilty of murder.

At Soham today there is a distinctly calm atmosphere and exam results remain enviable - 70 per cent achieved five or more good GCSEs last year.

But how does a school move on from such unprecedented media attention? Firstly, it has actively tried to draw a line under the incident.

Simon knew the press would be interested when Huntley's house was razed to the ground, so instead of banning photographers, he invited them to attend its destruction on a Saturday morning. By lunchtime everyone was gone.

Today, the plain plot of grass goes largely unnoticed. There is no plaque or testimonial to what occurred there, in stark contrast to the memorial garden at Dunblane School.

"We try not to dwell on the past," says Carin, who was undeterred by the college's macabre history when she joined last September. "It's a super school with the second best value-added in Cambridgeshire and I wanted to continue that. What happened may very slightly shape our future but life does move on. My job is to ensure that teaching and learning is as good as it can possibly be. It's important not to get distracted."

That can be easier said than done. On her first day in post, news broke that Huntley had attempted suicide. Journalists and photographers crowded round the gates and a Sky News helicopter hovered overhead. Carin had to call the police to patrol the college's perimeters and explain to staff, in her first briefing, that her priority was their safety and the smooth running of the school. "Whenever Huntley so much as coughs, it's going to come back to the college," says Carin.

"But in a way, it's much more predictable than a lot of things that happen in schools. I know that should something occur, I'll phone Simon and we'll put in place a vague game-plan. Over a five year cycle, most schools will experience something much more unpredictable - an accident or a suicide - it just won't be as public."

However, other schools in the UK have also felt the full attention of the media. Not least Teversham Primary, in Cambridgeshire, where Miles Cooper, another county caretaker, has been charged with sending a series of letter bombs. The Ridings School in Halifax, West Yorkshire, has also felt the heat. It became notorious in 1996 when it was forced to close temporarily due to 61 "unteachable" pupils.

The world's media descended on The Ridings (literally in the case of the BBC's Panoroma, which erected a crane so that TV cameras could zoom into classrooms), and unhelpfully dubbed it Grange Hell. After a spell of success, inspectors once again criticised the school in 2005, and last month it was placed in special measures. It faces closure if it does not improve.

"As we speak, there is a TV crew standing out by the gates," says Stuart Todd, head. "They have not sought permission and none has been given. They say they are just taking pictures of the pupils' feet, but I doubt that would make for very interesting viewing." Stuart tries to avoid media attention, although he sometimes has little choice in the matter. "My focus is on the quality of teaching at this school," he says. "People come into teaching to make a difference to the pupils, not to be in the paper."

But the ability of The Ridings to bounce back could be used to its advantage, according to Tim Devlin, an educational public relations consultant. "It's had negative publicity before and recovered. The school should send a firm message to the press that it improved once and can improve again."

He says that the worst thing schools can do when faced with a media onslaught is ignore it. "Don't just put up the shutters. Use the press as your friends," says Tim.

"A little bit of bad publicity is not that harmful because of the way people skim through papers. Parents are often just pleased to see their school mentioned in the paper, regardless of what it's about."

Being in the national spotlight is unusual. For most schools the only headlines they are likely to receive will be in the local newspaper, which is why it is worth cultivating a positive relationship with them.

When Hartcliffe Engineering Community College in Bristol decided to reward good attendance with a free chauffeur-driven limousine trip to a local restaurant last year, it ended up on the front page of the Western Daily Press accused of "bribing truants".

"As a school, we try to be positive, but it goes to show that things can blow up in your face," says Malcolm Brown, head. He organised a meeting with the editor of the Western Daily Press, who offered the school a right of reply under a much more positive headline. "The editor agreed that the story could have been handled more sensitively and I was relatively happy with the outcome. The local press is a powerful tool but it'll be done and dusted by tomorrow."

Some media attention can last much longer. In December 2005, Ian Blott, an art teacher from Headlands School and Community Science College, Bridlington, East Yorkshire, was charged with starting a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old pupil.

At the same time, no fewer than 11 other teachers at the school were embroiled in allegations of a similar nature. One of them was Steven Edwards, a science teacher, who was jailed last month for almost five years after being convicted of having sex with three pupils.

Steve Rogers, head, describes the unsubstantiated claims against the other nine teachers as bizarre and ridiculous. "Most of the time the teachers, both male and female, did not know they were being investigated," he says.

"The pupils told the police it was nonsense and then let the teachers know what was going on. There was a constant stream of angry, upset and incredulous teachers. They were all worried how it would affect their career and criminal records checks."

Steve, who arrived at the school in 2004, refused to speak to the press at the time and referred all enquiries to the East Riding of Yorkshire Council. "The council offered us support and has diverted interest away from the school so that we could be left out of it as much as possible," he says.

Inevitably, however, the investigations have had an impact on the school.

Television vans were frequently parked at the bottom of the drive and a Daily Mail feature branded it a school for scandal.

At the height of the investigation, Steve spent at least two days a week involved in the inquiry process, helping police, trawling through data or comforting staff, which has slowed progress at the school. He says: "We simply haven't had the time to spend on policy development, self-evaluation and new staffing structures. It's had a big impact on our budget as well."

He advises other schools in the line of fire to stay calm, be honest and stress the positives to the press. Safeguarding pupils is now a priority at Headlands. It holds a child protection session every training day; has reviewed its vetting structures; teaches pupils about personal safety and monitors and records all emails for up to two years. "It may have happened," says Steve, "but by making these changes, we are sending out a clear message that it will not happen again."


Always be as upfront and honest as possible. It will help ensure the story is fair and balanced

Never say "no comment". If you need more time to prepare, say you will ring back

Find out how much the press already knows and prepare a statement that stresses the positives

Get advice from your press officer or communications team at the local authority

Outline future improvements that will prevent the incident reoccurring

Allocate one person to manage all media enquiries, usually the head

Invite local press into the school to generate a constructive ongoing relationship

Keep parents and staff well informed - preferably before they read about it in the press.

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