My career in the movies

The Moor in Sheffield before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

The Moor before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

Thirty years ago today, at 9.30 pm, the BBC screened Threads, a drama about the effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield. It had an audience of 6.9 millions on first showing, and was nominated for seven BAFTAs, winning three of them including Best Single Drama. It was an ambitious project, taking a neo-realistic approach that combined elements of documentary with an almost soap-like family narrative. And I was in it.

The BBC had tried to produce a docu-drama about nuclear war before. Peter Watkin’s 1965 film The War Game was banned by the then Labour Government, though like most of my friends I had seen it – in my case several times. By 1984, Cold War tensions remained high, with Britain placing itself in the front line through its acceptance of US missile bases and Mrs Thatcher’s expressed willingness to use Trident. Unsurprisingly, the peace movement was experiencing a huge revival.

I had joined the Sheffield branch of END, a Europe-wide movement that attacked nuclear weapons of both East and West; this set it apart from CND in Sheffield, whose leading activists included Communists who dismissed END as “Trotskyite”. I don’t know how much success we had, though we had a very large meeting in the City Hall with the historian E P Thompson as our main speaker, and of course we enjoyed the much larger CND marches. Although I think the filming took place before the miners’ strike broke out, there were already plenty of other tensions as Thatcherism ate into the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire.

A BBC drama about nuclear war, in this polarised and highly charged atmosphere, was always going to be controversial. Looking at the Times for the following days, I see that Mary Whitehouse, then a very influential figure, attacked the BBC for screening the film, whose makers received around 100 letters – quite a post-bag in those pre-email days – most of which supported the decision. The BBC also organised a studio discussion, with the Labour politician Robin Cook vigorously defending the film.

And my own part? From where I stood, it was important to support and help this project; the script writer, the author Barry Hines, was a friend of a friend, so I was among the first to get my name down when the appeal for extras went out. I also offered to take my son and his half-brothers (I hope I asked them first!).

What I remember is waiting in the City Hall while the producers selected the likely extras, then hanging around for what seemed like ages on the Moor, a pedestrianized shopping street. I drank some watery coffee. The four of us were filmed marching along with a banner in a demonstration, and later we had to lie down on the pavement and pretend to be dead. Then we went home.

Turning mediocre PISA results into a good news story – or how the BBC swallowed a government press release

An article on the BBC website carries the headline “Record levels of Scottish school leavers going into work, training or study”. Similar stories ran across other Scottish media, reporting that the proportion of school leavers achieving a “positive initial destination” reached 91.4 per cent in October 2013, the highest level on record.

All these reports show a striking similarity to a Scottish Government press release. Most quoted heavily from the Education Secretary, Mike Russell, repeating his claim that ‘earlier this month the OECD rated Scotland as doing at least as well as, if not better than, a number of leading world economies in literacy, numeracy and science’. None of the journalists concerned appear to have undertaken any investigation of their own, but rather took the press release on trust, and swallowed all of the claims that it made.

The first claim concerns the ‘record’ number of school-leavers entering ‘positive initial destinations’. You’d think that a journalist would be curious about this term, but instead they seem to have assumed that it meant employment, education or training. These are certainly included in the concept of ‘positive initial destinations’, but it also includes voluntary work, and the new Activity Agreements introduced in 2010-11.

If we compare the most recent figures with the previous year, we see the following pattern:

  • The proportion entering higher education fell by 0.8%
  • the proportion entering further education fell by 1.1%
  • the proportion in full-time training rose by 0.4%
  • the proportion in employment rose by 0.6%
  • the proportion covered by activity agreements rose by 0.4%
  • the proportion in voluntary work rose by 0.1%

In other words, what we see is a small fall in the numbers who stay in full-time education, and a small rise in the number who enter jobs or become trainees. This is exactly what we would expect if overall economic activity rates are rising, and the youth labour market is favourable. And the data are silent on whether young people entering work are receiving training, and on the quality of that training.

Then we come to Mike Russell’s claim on PISA. There are well-known technical and design limitations to the PISA survey, but let’s leave these to one side. The findings for Scotland indicate that 15-year-olds were slightly ahead of their English counterparts on literacy and maths and slightly behind them on science. In each case, the difference was so minor as to fall within the margin for error.

The English Secretary of Education is dissatisfied that English children still fall behind their counterparts in Scandinavia and the Asian nations. The Scottish Secretary of Education, on very similar scores to England’s, describes the results as evidence of world class standards.

In both cases, the media meekly followed the lines set out in the respective sets of government press releases. Are education journalists in a position to hold government and education systems to account, and subject them to public scrutiny? And if not, what is to be done to promote an informed public?