A Class of My Own: Kids in the news
When I started a school newspaper my first choice as editor was Faith. If I tell you that Faith had two younger sisters named Hope and Charity, I think you can work out what kind of honest religious family she came from.
The Pindar Post was an attempt to involve pupils in their own newspaper: its writing, its editing, its pictures (with a Polaroid camera) and selling advertising space in local shops. We even sold it on a Saturday in the town streets and made a couple of bags for the sellers.
The newspaper started just after the Easter holiday. During that holiday, Faith had worked as a waitress at a conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters and she had witnessed an event that caused her to seek me out on the first day back because she was determined it would be her first story as editor in the paper.
At the conference, she had looked on as a man with a prosthetic leg gave a passionate speech against taking industrial action. At the time Mrs Thatcher’s government was trying to make teachers accept dinner duty as a part of their contract: something most teachers were strongly opposed to. Whilst not agreeing to accept dinner duty, the speaker thought it unprofessional and unhelpful to take strike action. He was roundly booed and jeered then when he made to leave the platform he stumbled and fell, his wooden leg falling from under him. The delegates roared with laughter:
“Not one person came forward to help him to his feet” a scandalised Faith told me “they just let him roll around on the floor and laughed at him. I want to write about it in the paper.”
At a meeting of the reporters, it was agreed that Faith’s story was important enough to run on the front page. I helped Faith to sub it with great care; we had to make sure there were no grounds for complaint.
It wasn’t long before the local paper picked up the story and then Radio York came into school to interview Faith about it. Unfortunately, they arrived at the exact moment that a furious NAS rep stormed up to my room to remonstrate with me for allowing a pupil to express an opinion about the teachers’ conference. I did my best to encourage him to calm down because a radio news reporter outside the door would be able to hear every word from my office, but his anger prevented him from hearing a word I said.
Of course, once BBC Radio York carried the story – long before the days of the internet – it went viral and I suffered a sudden drop in popularity with members of staff who were in the NAS.
A number of teachers told Faith that she ought not to have used her part-time job as a means of criticising teachers, but she was adamant that teachers should be compassionate people who cared about others and did not leave them lying on the floor in distress.
I was worried as the situation became fraught that it might have a bad effect on Faith. There followed a series of phone calls to her parents, but they remained onside, pointing out that they had always brought up their girls to tell the truth.
Life became even more hectic as the story made headline news in the nationals and an unbelievable offer came in from the London Evening Standard. They were prepared to pay for Faith to stay in London for a week, to sit in the strangers’ gallery and do a daily column about the behaviour of MP’s and the way they spoke to one another in the house.
I passed the offer on to her parents and at first, being a strongly religious family, they were very protective of their daughter and unprepared to let her travel down to London alone and stay for a week without assurances as to her safety. The Evening Standard came back with an improved offer: they would put Faith up at a top hotel along with mum.
They asked me what I thought and I encouraged them to go for it. At that time, Faith wanted to be a journalist and with that in mind it was a fabulous offer. So Faith travelled down to Parliament and provided the Standard with a week’s worth of outspoken columns which portrayed House of Commons’ procedure through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl.
The media is fascinated by the insights offered by school age pupils into the adult world. Many of them can speak their minds with a refreshing honesty and an absence of spin. In short, they tell it like it is.
On another occasion, the school paper ran a dating column and Andrew, my then editor, designed a computer programme that set youngsters up for a ‘blind’ date. All they had to do was cut out a form that came with an issue of the paper, fill it in with a description of the kind of partner they were looking for and post it in a special mailbox.
Quite how sophisticated Andrew’s software was I don’t know, but we had decided that we would make ‘a bit of a thing’ for the first couple he matched. The local MacDonald’s agreed to put on a free meal and soon after a local taxi firm offered a free ride in a Rolls to the date. With such a fanfare it was no surprise that all the nationals soon came along for the ride.
Suzi and Jason, two photogenic twelve year olds, were the first couple matched and everything seemed set for the perfect moment except for their youthful refreshing honesty whereby Suzy claimed ‘I can’t stand him, he’s such a big head’. Not that Jason was complimentary about Suzy.
They sat about four feet apart on the back seat of the Rolls with sour cream faces. The sheer honesty of the young does not always have a happy ending!