Communications winners and losers #1

Every month GKP identifies who in the world of education has scored in the PR stakes and who has had a communications malfunction. 

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February was a busy month for education correspondents. Anger over the introduction of baseline testing, frustration over school admissions and the growing teacher recruitment crisis ensured education headlines occasionally interrupted the endless coverage of Dave, Boris and Brexit. 

Communication #fail of the month

One of the most arresting stories centred on speculation over who will replace Sir Michael Wilshaw as Chief Inspector of Ofsted when he steps down. His term doesn’t expire until the end the year, so at first glance articles on a successor might seem premature. The advert for his replacement was published at the end of February, however, which suggests the government is keen for a successor to be agreed as soon as possible.

A week or so before the ad appeared, the Times ran a story claiming that senior Conservatives had grown ‘exasperated’ with Sir Michael who has ‘irritated ministers with his frequent comments on policy’ and they wanted a successor who was ‘more “aligned” with the government’s approach’. A few days later the Sunday Times published a follow up article claiming that the government was considering looking to America for a new Ofsted chief.

It’s hard to know exactly what the government hoped would be gained from the publicity beyond alerting prospective candidates to an imminent vacancy, if indeed there was any joined up strategy.  But the reaction was generally hostile. At a stroke the government managed to convey the impression that only lickspittles need apply and that the talent pool was so shallow they were considering fishing overseas.

Consequently, whoever does succeed Sir Michael will have to spend an inordinate amount of time either trying to prove they are not the government’s puppet or constantly denying the fact if indeed they are. Well done, Whitehall.

Communication #win of the month

Individually, Britain’s independent schools often garner favourable headlines. But the PR the sector attracts as a whole is often less complimentary. So research claiming that private school education puts pupils two years ahead of their state-educated peers was clearly a shot in the arm, even if it wasn’t universally welcomed.

The research was funded by the Independent Schools Council and conducted by a respected team at Durham University. Even though the academics pointed out that their findings came with a few caveats, the results attracted wide publicity and few immediate detractors.

That of course could change over time. But the authority of the study’s authors and their conclusions have provided an academic narrative that is a far cry from the one the independent schools sector usually enjoys.


Gerard Kelly is the former editor of the Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education.  He is the founding partner of Gerard Kelly & Partners (GKP), a communications consultancy specialising in education PR.