Why I'm praying for a better press

6th May 2005 at 01:00
The 2006 review of the national agreement deserves more than glib headlines, says Ewan Aitken

My family were much amused recently when the spellchecker of our local paper, the Edinburgh Evening News, got a bit confused and called me "revered" as opposed to the usual Rev. The hilarity was coupled with "not in this house anyway", as if this was news to me. My wife also suggested that it was not the first time the Evening News had got its facts wrong, but that wasn't meant as a compliment either.

It was, however, a better description than "bizarre" and "cruel", which were just two of the descriptions of my idea about the possible use of foster care in the most difficult of bullying cases, particularly where there was collusion between the parents and their children in a denial that the child was a bully.

I also received a great deal of support for the idea (if not from the Education Minister) but, unsurprisingly, that did not make the headlines - nor did any of the 14 other very successful strategies to combat bullying I outlined. Only that final paragraph seemed to be of interest.

I admit it is a fairly radical idea but to understand why I might offer it up requires it to be dealt with in context. Very few of the media who reported it even attempted to do so. For them, the headline was all and the soundbite was enough. It is amazing that articles could be written by London-based journalists, including quotes from those who disagreed with me, without me being interviewed.

How can any journalist begin to deal with a subject as complex as bullying and ask for people's views on ideas about one small aspect of that issue without first checking that they understand the idea in the first place?

I am not naive enough to be surprised by this, but it is frustrating. It makes any kind of open, honest and exploratory debate very difficult. It portrays the world in black and white terms when most of us live in a real world full of grey areas. Sadly grey areas don't make good copy.

For example, last week I chaired the City of Edinburgh's youth services advisory committee, a unique full council committee where 12 young people, representatives of 10 partner organisations and four councillors meet as equal partners. They all have full voting rights and together they plan youth strategy for the city, employing a budget of around pound;1.5 million to do so.

At that meeting, they agreed to involve young people in the delivery of continuing professional development for teachers who are training to support student councils. It's a radical change, but I doubt it will make any headlines because it is good news - that is, not easy to capture in a headline. Such limitations in the way we learn about the world about us is not good news.

I reflect on these experiences because, in my role as one of the joint chairs of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, I am part of the preparations for the 2006 review of the national agreement. This is an exciting time with huge opportunities. It is a chance to take stock, learn from the experiences of the agreement, celebrate the many successes and make whatever changes we need to support everyone involved in education to do their jobs even better.

This will not work if we cannot have frank, adult conversations, exploring ideas and developing new understandings of the challenges before us. My concern is that what will make the headlines will not be the successes or the complexities of how we explore the challenges ahead. What will make the headlines will be the things those who wish to undermine the national agreement can couch in terms of failure.

Yet we know that even those things that have not gone as we might have hoped need always to be seen in the context of the whole agreement.

I desperately want the review to be as transparent as possible. I want also to draw in as wide a range of people as possible. But we need the space to live in and explore the grey areas of how things in the agreement are and how we think they might be.

Otherwise, far from being revered, it will become reviled and it is too valuable, too significant and there is too much for all of us to lose, especially our nation's children. That means even those who don't like the agreement being adult enough to enter the debate for everyone's sake rather than delivering headlines for their own ends. I trust that I am not naive in hoping that they will do so.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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