Let not the facts get in the way of a “good” story.

 

Rachel Tomlinson - a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

Rachel Tomlinson – a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

A few days ago I wrote about Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher of Barrowfield School in Lancashire who sent a letter to each member of  a year group of her pupils praising them for their personal achievements beyond their examination results (Thank You for a Letter of Appreciation July 16th). This seemed to me to be the act of a caring professional eager to take a holistic view of learning and achievement and keen to show her pupils that she valued them as individuals with a diverse range of talents. It would seem, however, that my interpretation of this head teacher’s approach has not found favour with everyone.

Several friends and colleagues, directed me towards a mean spirited, poorly written and inaccurate portrayal of Rachel Tomlinson’s actions which had found its way on to the pages of the Daily Mirror (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/david-cameron-should-sack-soppy-3884479) an English tabloid newspaper, under the headline David Cameron should sack soppy, hippy teachers not gutsy former Education Secretary Michael Gove. This piece written by the journalist Carole Malone describes Rachel Tomlinson as a “soppy headteacher” and suggests that she had told her pupils that “their exam results didn’t matter because being a nice person and being able to dance and paint a picture was more important”.

The freedom of the press in the UK is something that I hold dear. Having visited countries where the right to express an opinion that challenges authority or the status quo can result in imprisonment or even worse, I believe that journalists in my own country generally serve us well in encouraging debate and questioning our view of the world. However, there are times when poor and inaccurate reporting do a disservice to the readers of newspapers and the simplistic need of journalists to draw attention to themselves gets in the way of informed debate.

Carole Malone in her brief journalistic rant is guilty of placing her own opinion before a presentation of the facts. Furthermore, her mischievous reinterpretation of the words contained in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter to her pupils does a grave disservice to the headteacher and also to the image of good journalism (which this piece certainly isn’t). My discomfort with the journalist’s piece is not with the expression of her opinions, which I don’t for a minute doubt to be sincerely held, but with the way in which she has chosen to misinterpret both the tenor and presentation of the words that appear in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter. At no point in her message to pupils does this head teacher suggest that examination results don’t matter. Rachel Tomlinson praises her pupils for their commitment and personal endeavour in undertaking these statutory assessments. She most certainly does not suggest that being able to dance or paint a picture is more important, but does point out that these accomplishments are worthy of praise. As Rachel Tomlinson states, the results of tests tell us something about pupils, but cannot tell us everything.

Carole Malone concludes her article by stating that:

“to be told by teachers that being a nice person is more important than exam results, is stupid and dangerous”.

I am unsure whether she personally feels in danger from this perspective or whether she believes that those who achieve high performances in examinations are likely to pose less of a threat. Perhaps it has not occurred to her that it is possible to pass examinations and also to be a “nice person”. It certainly appears to have escaped her notice that schools have a responsibility beyond that of cramming children to pass tests (this despite the fact that at various times the Daily Mirror has harangued teachers for a failure to address the social and behavioural education of children). She has certainly missed the fact that there are many talented people who make a rich contribution to our country through their ability to dance or paint despite possibly having had limited success in other aspects of their education.

I recall when I was at school being given what were usually termed “comprehension exercises” where the requirement was to read a passage of text and write an accurate interpretation of its content and meaning. Teachers (none of whom in my experience warranted the appellations of “hippy” or “soppy”) instilled in us the importance of avoiding misrepresentation of the facts. My issue with Carole Malone does not relate to her right to express an opinion, even when it is one with which I disagree, but rather with her sensationalism for effect based upon a poor reading of a simple and sincere letter.

Of course, Carole Malone has every right to suggest that her interpretation is valid and that my reading of Rachel Tomlinson’s letter is inaccurate. The letter is published in full on my earlier posting on this blog and I am more than happy to let you decide for yourself.

It was George Orwell who wrote that:-

“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper”.

Orwell was a great journalist with a commitment to fair and accurate reporting. He recognised that a failure to provide a balanced interpretation of information was one of the greatest dangers to a free press and was indicative of lazy journalism.

I concluded my earlier piece about Rachel Tomlinson’s letter by hoping that she and her staff enjoyed a well earned summer break. I now extend this wish to Carole Malone in the hope that she gets a summer holiday and returns refreshed to her work and possibly in a more generous frame of mind.

 

 

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “Let not the facts get in the way of a “good” story.

  1. Have read thrice and shared with my online partners . Because “Together We Grow and Learn”
    Rachel’s appreciation to her pupils through a Letter indeed means.a lot for the pupils, especially the one’s who weren’t at par, but are boaste by the HT through the special aspects in each of them which are not known to the people who have assessed them statistically. The marks or numbets they secure, no dout has its important, but is limited to this life and is beneficial to them only. Whereas the aspects pointed/mentioned by Rachel are for the wider self and community not imited to this world but hereafter.
    Last not the least, just assuming, If all the students get the equal mks or grade then what would be the criterian to grade them…??? I’m sure Rachel letter would help then.
    BUSHRA ANIS NAQVI
    HT.The Lyceum School
    Lahore Pakistan
    0092-42-37513275
    0092300-4407187

    • Thank you for posting this response. I am sure that in Pakistan, as elsewhere in the world there are excellent teachers who are able to see beyond the simplistic view that education can be valued simple in quantitative terms. Head teachers such as Rachel, and colleagues like yourself recognise the importance of a holistic approach to education and the consequences of failing to recognise student individuality. It is good to hear from teachers prepared to stand up for this view at a time when a much more narrow perspective dominates.

  2. Thank you so much for this letter. It is nice to read honest, articulate and balanced journalism for a change. I too have been shocked and saddened by the negative and judgemental response to Rachel’s letter. I find a great deal of the negativity comes from people who are not so well versed in Education and know little of the pressures our schools, and indeed our children, are under to ‘perform’. I commend Barrowford School and the way they have acknowledged their children’s success, whilst reminding them that there is so much more to them that is immeasurable by any league table. As a parent of five myself and a governor at a school local to Barrowford, I agree that it is imperative that we educate the whole child, celebrating all their victories, building them up to be eager to learn, finding the joy and success that will fulfill them for life beyond their time in school. It concerns me that people seem to value only Ofsted reports and league tables and measure a person on success based on these. When will they see there is so much more to a school and an education?

  3. Hi Ingrid,
    Thank you for this thoughtful response. I was particularly pleased to see this parental perspective. We are told so often that parents are interested only in academic outcomes, whereas we know that for many this is not true.
    Sadly, headteachers such as Rachel have become easy targets for those whose ideological stance is driven by a very narrow and elitist agenda. The voices of parents such as yourself are not heard enough and therefore have little influence in the current climate. I am quite sure that there are many headteachers who will be heartened by your words of support.

  4. Hi Richard,
    I think some members of the media forget that along with press freedom comes responsibility. Journalists have an ethical, moral, and professional responsibility to get the facts straight and if they are writing an opinion piece they need to ensure that they fully understand the issue. Malone calls for the soppy principal to be dismissed because she dares to care about kids, but what about sloppy journalists?
    I can only think that Tomlinson’s best response to this is to provide children with the sort of education that allows them to view the media critically so as to distinguish between ultimately meaningless, angry, sensationalist tripe and legitimate journalism.

  5. Hi Tim,
    I have never met Rachel Tomlinson, though I am pleased to say that head teachers of her ilk are still to be found who are interpreting their curricular responsibilities in a respectful manner. Neither have I met Carole Malone who disappoints me as a journalist who has opportunities to report fairly but appears intent on pedalling an ideological line.
    Sadly many of the current critics of education are those who are removed from its everyday challenges. When I visit schools I find dedicated professionals who work to provide the best of learning experiences for their pupils, often against the odds in a situation where schools are controlled by narrow political agendas (and for those who feel that I am being critical of the current UK government education policy, I would say, yes I am, but neither did the previous administration do us many favours.)
    I am sure that journalists also face daily pressures in their lives and feel the need to write stories that will sell newspapers. However, just as Carole Malone seems keen to see teachers reaching high standards, so should we expect journalists to rise above the mediocre.

  6. I think I’m going to let the quotes below speak for themselves (not something I usually do).
    Daily Telegraph Obituary 11 March 2003: Barry Sheene
    At school Barry was told by his geography teacher: “It is no use you thinking life revolves around motorcycling. Motorcycles are never going to make you a living.” With that thought, Sheene left school at 15.

    http://www.kidzworld.com/article/451-david-beckham-bioraphy
    Soccer has always been the biggest thing in David’s life. He and his dad used to play for hours when he was a kid. Because he was always kicking the ball around, David never did all that well in school. He dropped out when he was 16 and went to play soccer for Manchester United’s junior team. He played his first pro game for Manchester two years later when he was only 18 years old.

    There is an awful lot to be said for ‘nice’.

  7. Well said Carmel. Similar stories can be told around many other successful people in the arts, sport, business and many other walks of life.

  8. Hello Richard
    I’m glad you liked the letter. I thought you might be interested in knowing that it originated in the USA. I wrote it in 1999 and sent it to the local papers. You can see a reference to it if you google Mary Ginley Diary of a Mom. It has been used by many teachers in the United States over the years and I’m delighted to know it has made it to the UK.

    • Hello Mary,
      Unfortunately some of the media here in the UK seem to think that because Rachel Tomlinson picked up this letter from the USA that it in someway devalues its validity here in the UK. Personally I feel that we should be relieved that there are still caring adults who see the need to view children as more than empty vessels to be filled with the limited diet that many of our politicians prescribe.

  9. As a former colleague of Rachel’s and fellow Headteacher I would love to see Carole Malone and Toby Young who seems to have views which are just as far off the mark , spend a day in her shoes !
    Rachel’s school , as many across the country serving areas of social challenge , performs daily miracles through their holistic approach to children ! Feeding them , attending to their emotional needs , giving them stability and security before they do anything else . Why ? Simply because children are not in a fit state to learn before their basic needs are met .
    They need to be ready to learn and as Barrowford’s motto says then they can love to learn !
    Schools dealing with children in this way actually have twice and three times the work of other schools and should be praised every day !

  10. Hi Jill,
    I agree totally. The challenges that many children face in their lives today will not be addressed unless the approaches such as those adopted by this school are supported. It takes courage for head teachers to raise their heads above the parapet these days and they need all the support we can muster.

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