May 2022 edition: An Interview with John Dickens

An Interview with John Dickens

Following the publication of the Schools White Paper, Steve Rollett, CST’s Deputy Chief Executive, spoke to John Dickens, Schools Week Editor, about his reflections on the Trust sector, the White Paper and the role of the education media.

Perspectives on the sector

1. How do you think the Trust sector has changed in the time you’ve been reporting on education?

I started Schools Week in 2015 when it felt that the academies system was still finding its feet. The sector has matured so much since. There is a better collective understanding on what makes a good Trust, academy regulation is tighter and governance is much stronger. Now it’s up to the White Paper to iron out the remaining issues.

2. The Schools White Paper points towards all schools being part of a Trust by 2030. What do you think are the biggest challenges that will need to be overcome?

There’s evidence of hesitancy from standalone schools, perhaps due to a worry over autonomy. They see large School Trusts, and some that have more centralised approaches, and I think it just scares them a little bit.

Another thing we've written about a lot are the schools that have potential barriers to joining a Trust, like difficult PFI contracts, complex legal stuff, and financial problems. And I think you can probably add to that as well, maybe, some very small rural schools. These are all things the DfE needs to think about.

3. What do you think the education system will be like in 2030?

Honest answer: I don't know. In relation to the White Paper, I imagine by 2030 we're going to have nearly all schools as academies, either through choice, which I think will probably happen over the next few years, or them being nudged by a local authority. I think that’s what this White Paper wants; for it to happen more naturally, rather than what Nicky Morgan tried to do, which was to force everybody into it.

Hopefully by 2030, if all schools are academies, at least that allows those bigger, more deep-rooted issues in the structure of the school system to be sorted out: questions like, ‘what does a local authority do?’, and ‘what's it responsible for?’

There is increased talk of exams reform, but I think it will all depend on how the return of tests goes this year. If Ofqual’s solution for this year lands okay, then I think the exams system has probably overcome its biggest ever test, which would suggest it's going to continue as normal.

Ofqual is keen to usher in more technology for exams, which is potentially a big change – but that will take time. We also did a piece last Christmas about the solutions that schools have come up with to deal with COVID issues and the things that might stick. And a lot of them were related to technology.

Many schools now have great remote learning, or at least have that structure set up, so that if a child’s in hospital, or it has snowed, it doesn't mean they’re going to miss a day of education. That’s a great development – and we’re already seeing it being used for instance when schools recently close to become polling stations, or when schools closed physically during the storms last year.

Perspectives on the role of the media

4. How has the pandemic changed your work?

While news is always quick and immediate, the biggest change is that COVID has just made it even more so. Things were changing so quickly earlier in the pandemic, people just needed to know straight away what was happening.

So new guidance would drop from DfE, and it was so important we translated the key bits for the sector and got it out onto our website as soon as possible. Do you remember when everybody was waiting for the list of who were key workers, to see who could send their kids to school? Someone from our team happened to be awake and noticed when it was published, around midnight, and we managed to get it up online a few minutes later. It was one of our most widely read stories ever!

That sort of thing was always an important part of our role in the sector, but during COVID there was a lot more urgency and its importance was amplified.

5. How far is the media’s footprint in the system a positive one?

‘Media’ encompasses such a large range of things. The perception of the media, in general, is quite bad, I think journalists rank lowly on the most-trusted professions (whereas teachers score very highly!). But when people talk about ‘media’, are they talking about national newspapers? Are they talking about columnists? Are they talking about the BBC?

Focusing on the education sector publications specifically, we have two successful trade publications that offer slightly different outputs covering a wide range of interests. Having two vibrant, successful publications working in the education space is, I think, a great thing for the sector.

For Schools Week, I think we provide an important role in a) informing school leaders about, explaining and analysing schools policy, b) amplifying the sector’s voice to ensure it is heard by people in power and to drive change for the better, and 
c) reporting what’s happening.

As a team we take particular pride in achievements from that second point: driving change for the better. For instance, recently we got TikTok to take down scores of abusive videos about teachers and pupils after schools unable to force them into action allowed us to tell their stories. Having a publication that is willing to stand up for the sector is a really positive thing.

6. What would you like to see the media do differently?

I think it’s been particularly tough during COVID, but I always want to hear more from people in the sector about what Schools Week should be reporting about. Our journalism is at its best when it’s being led by the sector.

Schools Week is a vehicle for school leaders to drive the agenda and influence policy makers. So, if you’re reading this and think there’s a particular issue that needs looking at, or you have a really interesting idea that could improve policy, or your school/Trust is doing something that is different and is delivering great outcomes, then come and tell us about it!

7. What advice do you have for Trusts about the way they work with the media?

The way to shape what we do and write about is to speak to us. Schools Week reports on education, including the Trust sector, and that is sometimes a difficult path to navigate: sometimes you are writing about people you often speak to for stories, or often we are regularly featuring the same high-profile or large, national Academy Trusts.

But I have a really talented team of journalists that all learnt their trade on local newspapers. That’s important for me because they have experience writing for publications that are embedded in, and accountable to, their community. The same is true for Schools Week.

I appreciate answering questions from journalists about often difficult and sensitive events or issues isn’t easy. But there’s always the option to speak off the record. If anyone is concerned about something we’re reporting – or unhappy at an article – I would love them to give me a call: it normally always ends with a better mutual understanding and a relationship going forwards.

We care about what we do, we’re aware of the impact it has – and that’s why our loyalty will always be with trying to establish the facts.