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.