When the governors of Passmores decided to say yes to Educating Essex being made at the school none of us, in our wildest dreams, expected the series to cause quite the stir it did. We knew that our town, Harlow, would probably tune in – along with my mum – but over two million people watching? Never! Yet it trended worldwide on Twitter and we were suddenly in the eye of the storm; at least that’s how it felt. My media training for headship consisted of one activity as part of my NPQH and if I’m honest I didn’t take it that seriously. So much of what followed was pure luck and instinct.
The craziness aside, what really mattered for me when we were in the spotlight was not what anyone thought who wasn’t likely to send a child to Passmores or want a job with us. That is still all that matters really. So from the outset I made it clear to the production company, Twofour, that I alone would be dealing with the local media. They could have the national stuff – because the local press would be the only ones that would be interested. Or so I thought…
The reality check came quickly; before the first episode had even finished one national paper had done a supreme hatchet job on me, the school and, worst of all, the young people in my care. When that same national newspaper turned up uninvited demanding an interview the next day telling me that it would be good publicity for my school, with a cameraman hiding outside (my response was short and to the point), I seriously thought we had made a mistake. Unfortunately I was tricked into contributing to a follow up article by a journalist pretending to be from an Essex based newspaper only for him to sell it on to them, so it looked like I cooperated with them.
Obviously our example is an extreme way to publicise what our school stands for but, like many schools, we serve a town with too many school places for the amount of secondary age young people. This puts a great deal of pressure on the ‘PR’ side of being a head. I am acutely aware that if we are not full then it is likely staff will lose their jobs and therefore struggle to meet their own needs. The pressure of this should not be under-estimated.
In case you weren’t aware, if your school is a huge success or if it struggles, it will be of interest to the local media. Too many people have too much self interest in reporting about education either positively or negatively. Is this fair and just? Of course not. Is this going to help the children of your school? No, because both statuses add pressure (even though we all know which pressure we’d prefer).
I try to embrace opportunities to tell the story of our school’s journey. The challenges of doing a live interview for radio or TV can be lessened if you know what message you wish people to hear and I quickly learnt to bring every question back round to that. We teach our new staff the ‘partial agreement’ method of behaviour management: “Yes Johnny, I understand that you don’t want to sit according to my seating plan but right now I need you to help me to help the class by just taking your seat as asked”; and you need to go into an interview in the same way.
Gerard Kelly, the former editor of the TES, was very quick to point out to me, however, that once you have done the interview you no longer own the story – the internet does! I got burnt by this when dealing with a journalist from the Sun. The Sun is as close to a local paper as I was going to find in the national press so I wanted to engage with them. The journalist was lovely and spent the day in school as I had asked her to. She spoke to the children and I honestly think she left knowing that I am fortunate to work with fantastic staff and students. However, whilst on the way to do the Clive Anderson show on Radio 4 on the day the story was published, I saw someone opposite reading The Sun; and the headline and photo were not exactly complimentary. After you got beyond the first paragraph or two, which were not written by the journalist but by the sub-editors to fit the papers political viewpoint, the piece was good for the school – but how many people got that far?
The local media in my experience do exactly as you would want them to. They want ‘the story’ of their local school because education is something that everyone has experienced and therefore will make people read the paper and this sells advertising. You should also remember that local papers are generally chronically under-staffed and under-resourced and so they are likely to be grateful for anything you can do to help them write the piece.
As teachers we are never going to be celebrities, even though some may think they are (celebrity bloggers, I ask you!), or have to deal with the media daily unless something hideous happens at the school – and then most of us act on our instincts to protect our community anyway. However my experience now tells me to speak up for what I believe in and to remember that I am not representing myself in that setting, but rather, my community and beloved profession.
About The Author
Vic Goddard is head teacher at passmores academy – as seen on channel 4’s ‘educating essex’, and is the author of ‘the best job in the world’ (independent thinking press, £14.99).