Where has all the good news gone?

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Glasgow's libraries have precious few freebies these days, so I got a double surprise when I picked up a handout recently. The second one was that it was a thin broadsheet, heavily evangelical in tone, calling itself a Good News Paper for Today.

Missives like this are rarely Mr Excitement, have a spotted history and a shorter half life, few of them surviving more than a few issues, chiefly because bad news travels faster and, let's face it, is often more interesting. I liked the handout, and my new year resolution is to believe with greater conviction than I have previously mustered that good news is a commodity we in education are badly in need of.

It is now almost dogma for every ideologue strolling the high plains of moral and ethical conviction to blame education for all of society's woes. I am convinced that TAT's (Tony at Ten's) mantra, Education3, really gave the green light to every doctrinaire to lay down a Guernica pattern of criticism. E3 has taken so many compulsory counts since that baleful doxology was sprung on Joe Public that good news about it has been harder to find than chicken chow mein in Hong Kong. It is easy to see why. Put the spotlight on anything and you can't take your eyes off the warts.

I have admired HMI for some time for its clear stand on communication. Inspectors' reports indicate that they are members of the Plain English Campaign, committed to clearer communication. They wear its logo and apply its principles. "Scottish education has often been regarded as of high quality, providing a thorough grounding for pupils in a wide range of subjects." That is putting good news plainly. At the risk of being accused of fudging important issues, covering up blemishes or of behaving in a laxist way, I wonder if they could look at applying some of the techniques of clear communication of good news to their presentation of statistics, particularly of the statistics that critics lie in wait and ambush for.

Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1992-95 might look a little different if this were done. In primaries, writing in English language, for example, would be very good to good in 70 per cent of schools, which bottom line means that strengths outweigh weaknesses. The same for number, money and measurement in 75 per cent of schools. Sixty per cent of schools are coping well with environmental studies, and 75 per cent of headteachers are providing leadership that has no important weaknesses. In secondaries, 65 per cent of current courses in the first two years are very good to good, 60 per cent meet pupil needs and 80 per cent of headteachers are providing good leadership.

Aggressively taking the positive viewpoint will help to neutralise the morale-sapping criticism of education that is a central feature of so much in-our-faces public comment, and whose body language is all contempt. It feeds on itself and exercises a multiplier effect on everything we do. The efforts we put into making our news good, and the efforts of our pupils to learn, together with a positive presentation of that good news are the best means we have to make our critics recognise that education does not come from bumping your head against the schoolhouse wall but from getting inside and getting on with it. Every level of educational involvement has to work at this. Even the Educational Institute of Scotland could realign its stress call figures by underlining that thousands of members did not feel the need to register a complaint about class sizes, workload or whatever, and even to emphasise that its equal opportunities committee is only 32 per cent male.

If we are still scrabbling for a new year resolution, perhaps this one will do. Let's let everyone know that our schools are not places where we park Dumbos 'R' Us from 9 till 4, or that our schools are producing a generation of Forrest Gumps who have lost their sweet tooth, and whose talents more than match the less than ordinary quality of their work. On the whole, our schools are working well and are not caught in some kind of failure chain. If dumbing down is happening, then it is society, not schools, that is to blame.

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