Why do head teachers hate the Leicester Mercury?

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.

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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6 Responses to Why do head teachers hate the Leicester Mercury?

  1. Part of the problem is that many head teachers like to be in total control of anything that goes on in their school, and they can’t be in control of external reporting. They have become used to being accountable to Ofsted, the local authority, the governors, the school improvement partner and so on, but these are generally either people who are from an education background, or inclined to be supportive of the school’s management. Some (but not all) get quite prickly when they are expected to justify themselves to other people. I think you’re right that they should be accountable to the public as a whole, but some seem to think that if they report to the governing body, they have fulfilled that obligation. Proper accountability isn’t just about telling people good news, and keeping the bad news to your friends.

    I don’t see the Mercury’s coverage as being negative – but I think people have very long memories, and they only remember the bad press. I used to be on a charity board – every time we ran fundraising events and I suggested getting in touch with the Mercury to publicise them, I was told “the Mercury doesn’t like us”. This was because of an incident about twenty years ago (long before my time) which the trustees would have preferred to be kept quiet, but the Mercury published letters from some of the people involved, and it was therefore The Enemy for ever more. Again, a body which should have been accountable but which didn’t like being actually accountable.

    (Most head teachers have a very low opinion of “senior officials in the education sector” too, in my experience).

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s not you, Ian. If it’s any consolation, some schools don’t like being held to account by parents, either.

  3. Ian,
    If you ever get over the shock of your last English lesson . . . then please contact to Ibstock Community College (where I am a Community Governor) and see if my teaching collegues would like to invite you (and/or Martin) into a Citizenship class. A ‘free’, but reponsible and responsive press is something we should all treasure – not all countries have that and journalists really are, literally, on the front line (as are teachers) in these emerging democracies. Bit of a tangential comment, but there you go.

  4. Sue says:

    Anonymous is right and there are parents who, like you, are still waiting for the head to return their call. As a parent they do have the option of writing to the head teacher. If this does not bring a response they can write to the chair of governors. Sadly this can waste a tremendous amount of time and a situation, which may have been easily resolved if dealt with quickly, deteriorates into a very serious problem. Pity anonymous chose to be anonymous what is he or she afraid of?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Sue – it’s a long story, involving a head failing to act on a child’s worrying pattern of school absences and then taking sides in a family court case. I may say more in due course. From my experience, some teachers take offence with parents who ask questions, even though there is nothing more important than your own child and the quality of their education.

  6. Lesley says:

    As far as I’m concerned, you’re not there to be liked, you’re there to report the facts without fear of reprisals. Take, for instance, a small school in Earl Shilton. The school is on a notice to improve, it is in serious financial debt, the latest results have improved but they are still the lowest in the Leicestershire area. Over the last 18 months, half the Teaching staff have left. The atmosphere in the school is dreadful with the remaining and new staff in fear for their jobs due to bullying. No matter what the HT does, the Governing body support her because they would rather do that than admit they were wrong to appoint her in the first place. The LEA are fully aware of what is going on but does nothing – now, if you were the HT , the governing body or the LEA would you want THAT information to be in the public domain? No, because it just shows incompetance at all levels – so it is much easier to band together and threaten newspapers with legal action if they report these facts.
    Go on, try and obtain the accounts for this school (Tax payers money) under the Freedom of Information Act and I bet you come up against a great deal of red tape aimed at stopping you from obtaining these documents, so that you have proof to support an article. Try and investigate why the current Head Teacher left her last School and the results that she left them with. (they are now being turned into an academy)
    If you delve into this school’s stroy, you will find a story that is so newsworthy thany it will blow your socks off – but you won’t because I suspect you’re as scared of them as they are of you.

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