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Reporting on the education front-lines: in conversation with Branwen Jeffreys

Tom Rogers and Branwen Jeffreys

Monday saw Teachers Talk Radio welcome Branwen Jeffreys, Education editor at the BBC, who joined us for a conversation with Tom Rogers about reporting on the front-lines of education. Branwen's day started with an appearance on the Today programme at 6.30am and she finished with us at 8pm - so we were immensely grateful that she spent time talking with us.

Here's some of the insights we gleaned from Branwen's experience in education journalism...


Reporting on the impact of the death of Ruth Perry

"I wrote a piece the day before I met Julia, reflecting on the mood music around Ofsted and how schools felt after the pandemic... within hours it had been read by 1.5 million people" Branwen Jeffreys, BBC Education editor

When Ruth Perry's sister, Professor Julia Waters, first spoke out locally about what had happened to Ruth, Branwen was on holiday. By the time she had returned a few days later, she had a pile of messages awaiting, urging her to look into this.

Branwen had a private conversation with Julia Waters soon after, which she found compelling. She had to think very carefully about the consequences for the family were they to enter the national media spotlight in their pursuit for change, with the invasion of privacy that would inevitably follow.

It was clear to Branwen that, formidable as Julia was, what helped to put the death of Ruth Perry in the national spotlight so quickly was the outpouring of teachers and headteachers who shared their own experiences in the aftermath. What Julia had done, according to Branwen, was lift the lid on Ofsted and its impact on headteachers' mental health.


A journalist's duty of care

When dealing with highly sensitive topics such as the death of Ruth Perry, a journalist's first duty is to safeguard the different voices involved in the story,

It all boils down to being a "decent human being", as Branwen puts it. In her decades of experience as a journalist, Branwen recognises when contributors are extremely vulnerable and require her to implement her duty of care. It is a tough job that requires a great deal of sensitivity and courage.

Like any other journalist, Branwen is obligated to follow the Samaritans' guidance on reporting on suicide. They set out some broad principles. For example, we will never truly know what was in the mind of any individual in their darkest moments, and journalists must never talk about the means of death.


Schools, PFI and NDAs

"There's a process about fairness and upholding the BBC's standards... and [there's a process] about legal jeopardy and whether we're reporting within the law" Branwen Jeffreys, BBC Education Editor

Branwen spent most of Monday reporting on schools struggling with the pressures of their buildings funded by Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals. PFI allows the public sector to finance public-works projects through the private sector, with the public sector repaying private firms over the long term. However, charges for schools have risen due to the impact of inflation.

The contracts include non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in many cases. Even if a headteacher did not sign the contract, they are party to it as it is their school which is repaying the costs.

Branwen must ensure that headteachers were happy to speak out publicly on how their schools have been affected by rising costs associated with PFI. In addition, the work goes through two additional channels:

  1. Ethical advisors: to ensure that reporting is fair and responses have been gathered from all parties around the school;

  2. Duty lawyers: to ensure that all reporting is within the law.


Discerning fact from 'fake news'

Question from Adam Lamb: "I'd like to know what Branwen thinks could be done to help students discern between fact/fake news"

Teachers are having to grapple with the rise of 'deep-fake' videos and political campaigns disguised as ordinary citizens. How can they ensure their students are able to discern fact from fake?

Branwen urges students to look across different news media. Every day, she will look at 6-7 newspapers, social media and rival media outlets: the 'balanced diet' of a journalist. Students are not in a position to do this regularly, but they can engage in what Branwen calls 'knowingness': the digital literacy of understanding where a story has come from, the editorial slant of the outlet, and the funding behind a particular campaign.


Engaging with social media

"Millions of people get their news from streaming services, from podcasts, from the BBC app, as an easy way to check something" Branwen Jeffreys, BBC Education Editor

How do more 'traditional' journalists engage with a burgeoning online media amidst a time of huge technological change?

Branwen and her colleagues think hard about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and about the headlines that really engage with people. Her view is that a person-to-person story is particularly powerful: from a parent who is struggling to get appropriate SEND support for their child, to a worker who is struggling to balance their employment with childcare. Teachers know this, anyway...

Catch up with the full conversation between Branwen Jeffreys and Tom Rogers here.


John Catt: educational publishers since 1959

Teachers Talk Radio is brought to you in partnership with John Catt Educational: publishing professional development books and resources to support great teaching and learning in schools around the world. Use the code JCTTR2324 for 20% off your entire John Catt order - happy reading!

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