ANALYSIS: DfES under pressure to perform after fiascos

Education secretary Charles Clarke faces tough comms challenges in his new role. But when it comes to crisis PR handling, there are lessons to be learnt from previous education debacles, says Ian Hall

As Charles Clarke began a hefty schedule of policy briefings and meetings last week, a series of major PR challenges lay in his in-tray awaiting action. In a parallel to the public crisis in confidence that hit the Department of Transport after a series of PR blunders over the last year, the media spotlight has, in the past six months, shone on the Department for Education and Skills.

In late summer two high-profile mishaps in the sector led the news. Thousands of children were unable to begin the autumn term on time because police checks on teachers had not been completed. The well-documented A-Level marking fiasco followed within weeks.

The former case brought the long-standing problem of teacher retention and recruitment back into the news, while the latter farce served to undermine pupils' and parents' confidence in the examination system.

After last week's resignation of Estelle Morris - a disappointment to most in the sector - a DfES spokesperson said the department's press office would focus primarily on promoting policy initiatives. She emphasised that it was up to Clarke to spell out what comms strategies were planned and that he would do this 'in due course'.

Whatever Clarke and his aides have planned, rebuilding public confidence in the examination system is to be his most pressing challenge.

The body at the centre of the A-Level results storm is the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the quango whose head, Sir William Stubbs, was sacked in September after the publication of the independent inquiry into the fiasco by Mike Tomlinson.

The inquiry recommended that the papers of 1,945 students', from 839 schools and colleges, be remarked. Three awarding bodies - OCR, AQA and Edexcel - were affected.

A spokesperson for the QCA, now headed by CEO Ken Boston, says its 'immediate priority is to rebuild confidence in the A-Level system'.

The details of a major - probably year-long - PR and marketing campaign to revive faith in exams will be unveiled after 15 November. A spokesperson says: 'The media run almost the same story every year about exam results and grade inflation and deflation, but this year is the first time there has been interest in codes of practice'.

There are precedents for the scale of the task faced by the DfES. In Scotland, incomplete, inaccurate and late Higher results affecting a massive 17,000 students dominated the headlines in August 2001, a full 12 months before blunders by exam board Edexcel first brought the QCA into the media spotlight south of the border.

Since devolution, Scotland has had its own version of the QCA, the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In this instance, the SQA brought in PR firm hatch-group on a crisis comms remit to assist the body, which suffered reputational damage similar to that suffered by the QCA this year.

hatch Scotland's MD Graeme Jack says: 'No-one is interested in organisations such as the SQA or QCA unless things go wrong. Education is a very dry area, but the media go bananas when something happens.

'As far as I can see, the QCA needs to bring the media's understanding of how the system (of awarding bodies, etc) works, up from negligible.

It needs to have an infrastructure that can quickly inform the media about individual candidates' cases,' he adds.

SQA comms director Mike Haggerty, hired after the 2000 crisis, says: 'Even people inside the system were questioning the system. We had to open up channels of communication.'

He says the SQA made its comms 'as transparent as possible, knowing we were giving ammunition to those who wanted to attack us'. He cites a £750,000 technical blunder, when a computer server at the SQA offices was wrongly installed. 'We knew the press would have a field day but we just admitted that we fried it. But we ensured we got the main message across, which was that candidates would not be affected,' he says.

Other stakeholder groups share an interest in the education sector raising its comms game. National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations spokesperson Margaret Morrissey says: 'When parents read the newspapers they read bad news about education. We should be reading about pupils and teachers achieving targets, not the Government achieving targets.'

National Governors Council chairman Chris Gale says devising satisfactory methods to cut teachers' workloads is likely to be the 'next big issue' once the QCA furore has died down. Plans for greater use of classroom assistants in teaching roles has already stirred emotions.

Very much like the teachers themselves, Clarke, the DfES and the QCA will have their work cut out in the months ahead. It's certain this year's A-Level students - to name just one stakeholder group - will be watching closely.

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