Thursday, July 17, 2014

Time the press let go of the "Government bashes teachers" narrative

The mainstream media sometimes gets narratives into it's head whch are next to impossible to shift regardless of whether they still meet the facts.

Since approximately the time when the late Sir Keith Joseph replaced Mark Carlisle as Secretary of State for Education - yes, it really does go back that far - one of those narratives has been "Government attacks Teachers."

It doesn't matter which party is in government or which individual is Secretary of State, every attempt to drive up standards in schools is presented by the media as bashing teachers.

As the press coverage of his departure from Education to be the new Chief Whip demonstrates, Michael Gove is the latest in a long line of education ministers, Tory and Labour, to be depicted in this way by the media. Sometimes it's true: often it is rubbish.

Hence my "Quote of the day" from Chris Patten this morning, about the need to find language in which we can talk about the need to drive up standards in education without it being presented as an attack on the teaching profession.

The new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, may have to take a leaf from one of her predecessors, John MacGregor, who got so fed up with the newspapers and TV interpreting anything he said of substance as an attack on teachers, that he decided to stop saying anything of substance other than praising teachers.

John MacGregor told a group of Young Conservatives including myself that he was disappointed that anything he said which could be twisted into criticism of the teaching profession always was, but whenever he praised the profession, the newpapers and TV just didn't publish it. He told me that he had eventually told his press officers to say to the media that his next few speeches would concentrate on praising the excellent work of Britain's many good teachers, and until that message was printed and broadcast the Secretary of State would not have anything else to say to them.

The same delight in negativity and promoting conflict, especially in the world of education, was apparent when the speaker was someone other than a minister, too. I can recall attending a meeting of the Board of the Conservative Education Association, which was a grassroots pressure group rather than an official party body, and had its' differences with the then Secretary of State for Education, John Patten: one of his junior ministers let slip to me that the education ministers regarded us as "the enemy" which was a strange thing to say to a fellow Conservative.

A good friend of mine who was chairman of this organisation had invited the TV cameras to attend and record part of the meeting on the condition that the broadcast would show things which the group agreed with the government about as well as those we didn't. (As Nick Clegg knows to his cost, politiians who break election promises as easily as the media break promises like that one get absolutely pilloried.)

After the formal meeting the TV people invited us to do short one-to-one interviews on camera about what we would most like to see happen to improve education.

When the interviewer asked me before switching on the cameras what I was going to say, I replied that I wanted the government to listen to teachers. He asked me if I was willing to make that more aggressive and say that they were not listening to teachers. I replied that I was not prepared to say that, because going on television with a message worded like that was not the best way to achieve it. The conversation concluded:

TV Journalist: "Are you saying that it is more important to you to influence government policy than to get on Television?"

Me: "Exactly."

TV Journalist (with a wry smile): "It makes it so much harder for people like me when people like you realise that."

I was not interviewed. I do not regret this.

I do regret the role of the media in contributing to negative attitudes to education and for a lack of respect for teachers for which politicians have, often unfairly, taken the lion's share of the blame.

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