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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK
Changing the education news agenda

Based on Mike Baker's inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London

Since the mid-1970s, when the political consensus on education broke on the back of the row over closing the grammar schools, education has faced highly critical, often hostile, media coverage.

As Professor Brian Simon has put it, from that time onwards many journalists began "a demolition job" on comprehensive schools. This broadened into hostile coverage of state education in general.

As their methods and results came under scrutiny, teachers felt beleaguered. This helped turn them into what others have called "an insecure profession", displaying an instinctive defensiveness towards the media.

The result has been to deny teachers the voice they should have in the public debate.

What could be done to give the teaching profession a more effective voice in the media? HAVE YOUR SAY State schools have no collective voice in the way their counterparts in the private sector have. In contrast, the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis) does a very good job of representing the interests of its member schools.

If a journalist wants to write about something in the independent sector Isis will suggest a school or a head teacher, carefully selecting - I am sure - those that will give the most positive image. They rarely, if ever, say "no comment".

Who speaks for schools?

They may not like the chosen agenda - drugs in public schools, perhaps - but they know how to try to turn it into a positive story - with examples of, and access to, anti-drugs policies.

Who does that for state schools? It could be the local education authority, but very rarely is.

It could be the teaching unions, but they have a rather different role, defending their members' interests not schools'.

Equally it does not help that there are so many different and competing unions who are vulnerable to a "divide and rule" approach from government. It has proved difficult, under such circumstances, to mix the professional role with the trade union role.

One idea that has been floated in the past to help fill this vacuum is a state school equivalent of Isis. Perhaps it is time to launch this idea again?

A State Schools Information Service would be able to recommend good schools to film in or to write features about, it could promote new ideas that were being piloted in individual schools, and it could highlight the problems that are preventing progress on raising standards.

It could also help individual schools that have experienced bad news - such as The Ridings - to deal with the media.

Just think what such an agency could do in representing schools. A membership fee spread between 25,000 schools need not be burdensome. Indeed it would prove much cheaper than the costs some schools already pay for often rather poor individual PR advice and representation.

A voice for the profession

There is, of course, another body that could change the way the profession is portrayed in the media and which could help set the agenda: the new General Teaching Council for England.

It could fulfil many of the roles of a State Schools Information Service, providing it has access to the right professional media strategy advice.

Doctors' organisations do not stand for being told by government how to diagnose and prescribe. The GTC must lead the debate on how and what teachers should teach.

It has already indicated it wants to commission and publish research. This is promising. But the research must be relevant to policy issues, it must not get bogged down in Research Assessment Exercise minutiae, and it must not be seen as 'tame'.

The GTC can only promote the professional image of teaching if it focuses on children not on teachers. The GTC should also be commissioning research and developing ideas for the next phases of the curriculum, such as the next stage of the literacy and numeracy strategies.

As teachers in Japan have shown, involvement in curriculum and professional development brings a sense of ownership. I believe this is part of the solution to the problem of low teacher morale.

Professionally-driven reform must be the aim of the GTC. It is equally vital the GTC quickly ceases to be funded by government. There have been some grumbles about all teachers being charged a fee. There is no alternative: if teachers want to be in control of their own affairs, they must not let anyone else pay for it.

Real people not 'suits'

I would hope the GTC will be effective at getting its teacher members into the media; they can speak with the knowledge and authenticity of practising classroom teachers. This will fit with the trend for the media to want to hear from - as the newsroom jargon goes - 'real people, not suits'.

This means that whereas television and radio reports were once more likely to include the education secretary, the shadow education secretary and a union general secretary, they are now more likely to include a particular school, its head teacher, a teacher in the classroom and parents and - why not? - pupils themselves.

It is not always appropriate to illustrate a story with this sort of microcosm but - when it is - it is more likely to engage the viewer or listener's interest and understanding. We now try to not only tell our viewers what is happening but to show them.

We are just emerging from a period of intense policy change. Inevitably the government has dominated the agenda. Now though - as the flow of Whitehall initiatives slows - there will be more space, and more demand, for others to set the agenda.

We have also emerged from a period when the failure of teachers was part of the story. I suspect parts of the media which once were excited by stories of falling standards have now grown a little bored of that line. Let me give one example.

When I looked at newspaper coverage of the 1998 GCSE results I was surprised to find that even when there was a choice of negative or positive stories the newspapers opted for very balanced coverage.

On this occasion the overall pass rate for grade C and above was up slightly but the percentage of entries failing to score even a G grade was also up.

The Daily Mail, so often in the past the first to cast doubt on rising exam pass rates, went for the commendably fair headline: "Top grades up, but so is the rate of failure".

And The Sun also combined the two angles with its headline: "Teachers put brainy kids first to boost exam passes".

Shift of focus

It seems the old refrain of "results up, standards must have been lowered" has worn a bit thin. Maybe it is just that the story has become boring.

More likely, the newspapers have finally got the message that parents (and therefore readers) do not like to see their children's achievements constantly denigrated without good reason.

However, I think it may be more even than just this. I believe there are now signs of a distinct change of tone in newspaper coverage of education.

That is not to say it is not still critical. It must remain so. But it is no longer so common to see everything blamed on teachers and teaching methods.

Instead new concerns are emerging in media coverage: worries about excessive central control, over creativity being squeezed out of the curriculum, and anxiety that children are being "burnt-out" by too much testing.

Even the political right, which began the assault on "progressive teachers", has switched to demanding greater teacher autonomy as a defence against excessive government control.

Conservative Party policy is now to leave as much as possible to teachers' discretion. Such are the swings and roundabouts of politics.

I believe the days of the "demolition job" on education are over; that story has run its course. There is a more open public debate about what schools should be about.

Not for a long time has the moment been so ripe for the teaching profession to shake off its "insecure" image and regain its voice in that debate via the media.

Mike Baker's lecture is being delivered at the Institute of Education on 14 June.

The full text is available in a booklet published by the Institute of Education Bookshop, telephone 020 7612 6050 or email, price 3.00

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