Behind The Headlines

25 Sep 2007 The Guardian

How to ride out a media storm

Headteachers tell the stories behind their school scandals, and explain how they survived the press. Mike Baker reports

Tuesday September 25, 2007
The Guardian

Sumaya Alyusuf, headteacher of King Fahad Academy, west London
Sumaya Alyusuf, headteacher of King Fahad Academy, west London. Photograph: Frank Baron

It would send a chill down the spine of any head, teacher or governor: TV crews, satellite trucks and reporters setting up camp outside your school gates because, suddenly, you are in the news.

It's not something a school usually expects. They never thought it would happen at The Ridings in Halifax, West Yorkshire, St George's in Westminster or the King Fahad academy in west London. Yet the media engulfed all three.

As the BBC's education correspondent for 18 years, I was often one of those reporters. I used to wonder what it was like for those on the inside, dealing with a crisis in the full glare of the media while trying to keep the school on an even keel. I have also wondered what happened after the media bandwagon had rolled on.

My experience is that schools often freeze in the headlights. Not knowing where to get advice, they make things worse by shutting out the media. For a new series for Teachers' TV, I returned to schools that had been in the headlines.

In October 1996, The Ridings was dubbed "the school from hell" by newspapers. The media coverage was so intense that, a decade on, it is still struggling to escape its past. Indeed, it is now in the process of being closed and may be replaced by an academy.

It began when the teachers threatened industrial action unless some 60 "almost unteachable" pupils were excluded. The teachers called in their union's leadership because they felt they had been getting no support from either the governing body or the local authority as they struggled to keep discipline.

Nigel de Gruchy, the leader of Nasuwt, promised support, but, as he recalls now, he warned the staff it would unleash huge media interest.

Once the list of 60 pupils got out (to this day, no one admits leaking it), a media already obsessed with school discipline descended. De Gruchy says: "All hell broke loose." Camera crews, radio cars and reporters were camped opposite the steps to the school's main entrance. Denied access or interviews, the media fell back on whatever they could get: exterior shots of pupils, often playing up for the cameras, and interviews with disgruntled parents and neighbours.

Infamously, one cameraman captured video of the headteacher walking up the steps, followed by a girl flicking V-signs behind her back.

Panorama commissioned a "cherry-picker" crane to take long-lens shots inside classrooms. Teacher Will Long was caught unawares by Panorama's cameras, as he told a pupil off for kicking a door. He says: "It was quite frightening. On my way into school, I was sidestepping reporters as they tried to get comments."

Teachers were ordered not to speak, and the head refused interviews or access. One result, says Long, was that no one was able to explain that the girl who flicked the V-signs had been excluded from another school, and had no loyalty to a new head.

Panorama's semi-secret filming of apparently chaotic classrooms was open to misinterpretation too, because no one could explain that these were not normal lessons but pupils waiting to go home just after they had been told the school was closing temporarily.

Liz Meech was education correspondent for BBC Leeds and it was her cameraman who got the V-signs shot. She argues that if the head had given interviews and allowed controlled access, the media would not have been camped outside and that shot would never have happened.

This is underlined by the experience of Peter Clark, a neighbouring head who was later drafted into the school. He had help: first from a government press officer and then from a BBC producer, who suggested allowing controlled, "pooled" access. Clark was shrewd enough to take that advice, and the media circus, happy to have got its pictures, moved on.

He also quickly learned that the media are always looking for the next stage in the story. "They had done the 'Ridings is a shambles' story; now they wanted to do a 'Ridings in recovery' story." He found the media very helpful in promoting the school's new image to local parents.

St George's hit the headlines in 1995, after the fatal stabbing of its head, Philip Lawrence, at the school gates. Although it was initially sympathetic, the media coverage changed as the school struggled in the aftermath of the publicity and found itself in special measures.

Margaret Ryan, in her first headship, replaced Philip Lawrence. She was told by the local authority and the Roman Catholic diocese not to talk to the media. She found herself accused of going "soft" on school discipline. Ryan became a scapegoat and was eventually given no option but to resign. Crushed, she contemplated leaving teaching for good.

Speaking publicly about it for the first time, she says there had been "deeper worries" in the school well before she took over, but she had been unable to talk about them to the media, because the authorities would not let her. "It's very difficult for the press to know what is going inside a school unless you actually tell them. And if you don't tell them what's going on, they will make up their own minds about it." She has gone on to turn around two other schools that were already in special measures.

The third film in the series looks at the Islamic King Fahad academy. After allegations this year from a former teacher that it was using offensive and racist books, it was accused of inciting racial hatred. The school was unlucky, in that the issue touched a very raw nerve in the aftermath of terrorist incidents in London. Indeed, it became such a big story that the principal, Dr Sumaya Alyusuf, was grilled on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman. At the time of filming, she had not managed to consult staff to reach a decision about removing the offending books from the school.

"I still wanted to go on, because I really wanted to tell the public about the academy, and to correct the misrepresentation of what was happening," she explains.

It was a disastrous performance, alleviated only by her calm demeanour. The lesson was clear: if you get caught up in a story like this, you must take action swiftly and be ready for obvious questions about your proposed solutions.

To Alyusuf's credit, after this disastrous start, the school became proactive. It staged a news conference to announce its decision to remove the books, and explained that it had never used that part of the text anyway. This dampened the furore, as did later invitations to the media to come into the school. With hindsight, Alyusuf recommends that schools are "honest, open and transparent".

The lesson from these cases is that, however unfair a story may be, it's not a good idea to try to shut the media out and that, in the 24-hour media age, early impressions are vital.

· Mike Baker presents the first of three films, Behind The Headlines, on Teachers' TV on October 1,,2175916,00.html

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