This week sees the start of my fourth school year covering education in Leicestershire.
It’s a job that, most of the time, I love. Equally it’s a job that, at times, drives me to utter despair.
I have been told by a senior official in the education sector in Leicester that most head teachers in the city hate the coverage in the Leicester Mercury so much, they’ve stopped buying the paper. I don’t know how right this is, but from what I hear, I guess there’s an element of truth. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the last three years on my watch.
I would desperately like to know the reasons. If any of you are reading this, please tell me and I’ll try to do something about it.
In this blog, as the new school year starts again, I’d like to share with you some of the things school people, mostly teachers, have told me over the past year or so (I dread to think how they feel but don’t tell me!) and ask that you let me know what you think.
- The Leicester Mercury just wants to criticise schools
At regular intervals throughout the debate over the proposed closure of Riverside College due to low pupil numbers I’ve been told that it’s partly the Leicester Mercury’s fault because we portray the school as full of tearaways who cause trouble on the streets and that’s why few parents want to go there. I know that in the three years I have been at the paper I’ve never written a story about people complaining about Riverside’s pupils. I checked the archives; my predecessor who was here for two years before me, hadn’t either. I know people genuinely believe that all we write about every day is how awful schools are and how pupils are thick and delinquent. Why?
- We have no right to report on issues schools do not want made public
A city school in special measures asked me to do a series of special articles about how they were trying to turn standards around. It was great for the paper – the head teacher was wonderfully honest – and fantastic publicity for the school because they could show to parents how real changes were being made. It helped them win back the community’s trust. A few months later, when the school had been given the all-clear, a planning application appeared for thousands of pounds (of taxpayers’ money) to be spent on building work at the school. For reasons I won’t go into now, it was a little bit controversial. When I telephoned the chair of governors I was told it was none of my business and if they wanted to tell parents what was going on, the school would send a letter out. Oh, and I couldn’t write that she’d refused to comment either. As publicly-funded (and these days, increasingly accountable) institutions, isn’t it right that, within reason, we’re free to report what they are up to?
- It’s our duty to give priority positive press to the schools in the most difficult circumstances
This is what one head teacher said to me. Do you think he’s got a point? We should ignore the more successful schools – the Beauchamps and Rushey Meads of this world – and concentrate on boosting the schools that are struggling. (This opinion appeared to be backed up by correspondence to the newspaper only last month criticising us for congratulating in our opinion column Leicestershire County Council schools for their high key stage two results when the city’s schools were achieving equally well in far more challenging circumstances.) I understand his point and, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps because of my instinctive support for the underdog (evidenced by a lifetime’s frustrating support of Watford FC) I do find myself searching for stories from the lower performing schools. It’s certainly not a conscious decision on my part but I do want to prove people wrong. If a school has the worst GCSE results in Leicester I want to give voice to the boy who studied there and got straight As, as I did last week. Do you think that’s right?
- We only print bad news
Time after time teachers tell me this. One of these days I need to do a proper count but at a rough estimate I guess good education news outweighs the negative stuff by at least 10 to one, and I think that’s conservative. And yet one head teacher said to me that when she searches for Leicester education news in Google, all that comes up is reams and reams of negative stories. This is not the case in other parts of the country, she told me. And it’s the reason why schools in Leicester find it so hard to recruit new teachers – because they take one look at all this bad news and decide not to apply.
- It doesn’t matter what people tell us, the Leicester Mercury just prints what it likes anyway
I am flabbergasted that anyone would believe this. But they do because they’ve told me. It is simply not true. All I’m interested in are the facts and people’s honest opinions. Education in Leicestershire is interesting enough as it is without needing to make up anything. If you tell me something you want reported, I’ll write it down and print it without putting any kind of bias one way or another on it. And if someone has a differing view I’ll do exactly the same for them. And if you tell me you don’t believe me, like so many tell me, that journalists are all the same and we don’t care about facts, I want you to know that that hurts just as much as if I told you that all teachers are just in it for the holidays.
- We favour some schools over others
I had a meeting at the end of the summer term where some primary school head teachers said they were disgruntled that one or two specific schools got much more coverage than others. This would be bad enough at the best of times but when it comes to controversial topics – such as why schools close during the snow or why some schools have large surplus balances – readers are misled into thinking one or two outspoken head teachers speak for them all. I can understand this point of view. I try very hard to give coverage – and seek opinions – from as a diverse range of schools as I possibly can. Days can go by when I call 10 to 15 schools to be told, often by the secretary, the head teacher doesn’t want to speak to me or they can’t let us take a photo. Even more frustratingly I’m told the head teacher is in a meeting and will call when they’re free. I’m still waiting for some of those calls two and a half years later… Head teachers are busy. Why should they speak to me? I completely understand. But when deadlines loom and there are just 10 minutes to go before I have to submit my story, I find myself returning to the head teachers I can rely on to pick up the phone, talk to me for a couple of minutes and be honest with me and not tell me aggressively I’m wasting their time or that I’m the sort of journalist who would love their pupils to fail their exams just so I’ve got something to write about. (Yes, this has happened.) And when these head teachers phone me to ask whether we’d be prepared to come and take a photograph of something interesting and newsworthy in their school, of course I’ m only too happy to oblige. It’s a win-win situation really. How can I convince more head teachers of this?
- I love to portray teachers as lazy and incompetent
Some are, I suppose, and most aren’t. I know a handful of journalists who are downright terrible too. Certain national papers never miss an opportunity to criticise teachers. Just like they love criticising the police, social workers and female newsreaders when they wear a skirt that doesn’t cover their knees. My newspaper isn’t one of them. I’m convinced that teachers are far better than they were when I was at school. Earlier this year I spent an afternoon at New College. I taught an English lesson to a class of 14-year-olds and talked about newspaper-style writing. It was one of the hardest and most terrifying things I’ve ever done and good teachers have my utmost respect.
- We ignore all the good work that’s going on in schools
One of things that I know we’re not particularly good at is making it easy for schools to tell us about their events, activities and achievements and get these, and any associated photos, in the paper or on our website. I’m currently working on a few ideas to make this better. We do genuinely want to know what’s happening because it’s our job to cover all that’s happening in Leicestershire. Hopefully we can continue to improve this – and I’d like your thoughts about the sort of thing we should be doing.
A journalist’s relationship with schools is never going to be a bed of roses. And it must be remembered that we’re here not just to represent schools’ views but parents’ and the average man on the street’s opinions and concerns too. But, three years on from first starting to work here, I’m still shocked at the amount of antipathy I encounter from some schools towards the Leicester Mercury. I’ve written about education in two other areas of the country and did not experience anything close to this. I know a lot of this is historical – as my first point proves, people have very long memories – and over the course of my time here things have improved.
But there’s still a long way to go.