Today brought the very sad news that Richard Garner has died. He was once the UK’s longest serving education correspondent, having worked on the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Times Educational Supplement, the Mirror and the Independent between 1980 and 2016 and, afterwards, he continued to write a column for the Times Educational Supplement. His book, The Thirty Years War: My Life Reporting on Education, was published in November 2016. Some of his Independent articles are here.
Richard also wrote my personal favourite ever HEPI paper, Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world, which is chock full of timely anecdotes on how higher education institutions should engage with the media.
Here are three of the best.
Gone, hopefully, are the days I encountered while working as Education Editor of the Independent, when I asked an academic to write a 1,200-word piece on his research on testing primary school pupils:
‘What I know about primary school testing could not possibly be encapsulated into 1,200 words’, came the reply.
‘That’s a pity’, I said. ‘The page only has room for 1,200 words.’
We were at an impasse. Now that academic could be composing a 140-character intervention on Twitter.
Christine Wilkinson had slept rough on the streets for 32 years as a ‘bag lady’. She had endured countless beatings and had been raped. She had been in and out of prison and mental hospitals and had three children (by different men) taken away from her. She was at the end of her tether and sought the help of a counsellor through a shelter where she was staying. The counsellor saw that she had been a bright pupil at a grammar school in her teens and suggested a college course for her. It all ended up with her obtaining a first-class degree in the humanities. This came to light through a resourceful public relations officer who thought long and hard about where to place the story. He thought it had Daily Mirror written all over it and I was working for that publication at the time. Following the publicity, she was invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and ended up writing a book about her experiences. Success!
When the first school league tables came out, I was at the Daily Mirror at the time and – in line with the Labour Party’s then line – we decided that we would not publish them. They were misleading, or so the argument went, and did not give a true reflection of a school’s worth. We still had to write a story about them, though, so I gathered together a printed version of the tables and put it on the desk beside me to refer to as I wrote my story. I lost track of the number of senior executives and reporters who queued up to look at them in order to find out how their son or daughter’s school had fared. A wry smile formed on my lips. ‘These league tables aren’t going to go away if there is such a thirst for the knowledge in them’, I thought. Needless to say, the following year we published them and the Labour Party changed its stance over them, too. In other words, we ignored them at our peril. The same is true of higher education league tables.