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You, too, have the power of the press

Just before Christmas a funny thing happened. I went to a school, as a reporter, and no one, during the entire visit, blamed the media for anything. No one side-stepped a question, or asked for anything they had said to be off the record, or grumbled about the lack of resources, or prefaced any remark with a complaint or an excuse.

They waved me in, showed me what there was to see, waved me off again, and hurried away to the main business of their day.

It is astonishing how rarely this kind of confident, brisk and baggage-free exchange happens between journalists and schools. Even in today's media age, many schools are still painfully uncomfortable with the press, unsure of how to deal with reporters, or even whether they should deal with them at all. As a result, they overstep boundaries in all directions, get it wrong, fail to think realistically about either the limits or the possibilities of publicity, and end up missing golden opportunities, or feeling betrayed, because what they had thought to be a golden opportunity turned out to be a much baser thing altogether.

I could write a book on how schools mismanage the media.

Some roll out the VIP carpet in misplaced awe at the power of the national press. Others opt to treat you like their oldest mate, using your first name copiously (although not always correctly - "Well, Valerie, it's a very interesting point you've raised there, Valerie"), spilling all kinds of beans, then hurriedly explaining that they shouldn't have told you what they just did, so would you mind ignoring it. Some, having got you through their doors, refuse to let you go until you've toured every corner of the new home economics block, even though its the PE programme you've come to see, while still others are querulous to the point of hostility, querying the whole basis of what you are doing, and then telling you why you are wrong to even try. Almost all, at some point or other, like to make their views plain on the "teacher-bashing" press.

All this is understandable, if not exactly helpful to the cause. The media is a very rough trade, and needs to be handled with caution. If you agree to be interviewed, you have to do it in full awareness of the knockabout world you're stepping into. Some journalists are careless or callous; some have their own agenda; all are fallible. And even the majority of us, striving to do an honest job, are not only duty-bound to put the spin of readability on a piece, but also to operate under constraints of time and space that most people would consider ludicrous. Long interviews have to be boiled down to a couple of paragraphs, elaborate explanations to a pithy quote or two. And everything always has to be done by yesterday.

So the sensible school might surely be the one that turns its back on the press altogether. Consider this, however: if this year's election is going to be about education, education, education - whose education is that going to be?

As a parent, journalist and voter, I hold at least three different educational realities in my head and have trouble reconciling any of them. Last autumn, returning to reporting on British schools for the first time in seven years, it struck me like a bolt from the blue how huge the chasm was between the education debate I'd been following on the radio and television, and the day-to-day realities of life in the classroom.

Our national debate runs like some old tram on the rails of political stereotypes. On the blue rail: failing schools where scruffy, incompetent teachers teach politically correct treatises to illiterate yobs. On the red: noble, over-stretched teachers, in crumbling classrooms, soldiering valiantly on in the face of a bullying government and its attendant boot-boys, the inspectorate and curriculum bodies.

The truth is infinitely more complex - and positive - than any of this, but who is going to tell us it? Who actually speaks for schools? Political parties rehearse their own realities; unions fight their corner for teachers-as-employees; subject associations support segments of the curriculum; pressure groups push for whatever it is they stand for, and independent school associations sound the drum for the private sector.

So who is left to translate the broader picture? Who, beyond school inspectors and education researchers, even goes into sufficient different schools to get one? From where, in short, can we get any sort of idea of what schools are actually like?

The only possible answer can be from schools and teachers themselves, who must stop complaining about the dim public view of education, and start doing their damnedest to turn on a light bulb or two.

And how? By using the media as boldly as they feel the media mis-uses them. By learning how the public relations game is played, and then playing it for all it is worth. By finding not only the professional confidence to throw open the door to the garden of education, but also the courage to accept that that will inevitably mean showing the weeds among the flowers, and inviting some visitors who only know how to trample down prize blooms.

Because even with all this, the pay-offs can be enormous.

Way back in the early days of the women's movement, working for a mainstream women's magazine, I discovered that most readers shut up like clams when faced with thumping propaganda, but are receptive as radar to things that they know in their bones to be true.

All the demonstrations and marches in the world by the Women's Liberation Workshop prompted only furious, knee-jerk letters of hate into this magazine's office, but sympathetic explorations of exactly those issues women were marching about - abortion, low pay, and denigratory images of women - released a flood of recognition, sympathy and resolve for change.

Exactly the same potential exists to rally support for schools, if only schools were bold enough to go after it. The more teachers show pride in their work, and a willingness to demonstrate how they do it, the more people will listen when those self-same teachers raise legitimate anxieties and concerns about schools.

But timidity still rules.

Over the past few weeks, for example, I've been searching for teachers willing to be quoted on their experience with OFSTED. There's no hidden agenda here, no desire to prove that the experience is either "good" or "bad", merely the wish to tell the wider world what school inspections are and how it feels to be part of one. Any conclusions will come directly from what teachers themselves choose to say about it.

But will they talk? Not on the record, no. Not the ones I've spoken to so far. Because they're scared of being seen as incompetent, or boastful, or of what their colleagues might say, or of their head's disapproval, or of what the inspectors might think. Scared, in short, of the press.

And, after all, it's always much safer to sit back and complain about what other people say, than to risk getting involved oneself - even if nothing ventured is nothing gained.

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