We’re just not that kind of newspaper

Judging by the photos used by Fleet Street, one would think that boys (and brunettes) receive their A-level results on another day, writes Chris Cook

It is a well-worn observation that even respectable newspapers like to illustrate their coverage of A-level results day with pictures of delighted and pretty (usually blonde) girls. This year August 18 is the nervously awaited date when hundreds of thousands of English 18 year-olds get their exam results. But judging by the photos used by Fleet Street, one would be forgiven for thinking that boys (and brunettes) receive their results on another day.

This is partly because many journalists are moral degenerates. QED. But what might shock you is the enthusiasm with which schools encourage the use of pictures of pulchritudinous blondes. Indeed, a little cadre of English private schools compete to supply attractive young women to the national press.

Last year, I received an unsolicited voicemail from the press liaison at Badminton School in Bristol: “Hi Chris, . . .Just wanting to give you some details of some absolutely beyootiful girls we’ve got here who are getting their A-level results tomorrow. Some lovely stories . . . They’re amazing girls.” Bedales School in Hampshire helpfully supplies photos to journalists, sending out pictures of some of its pupils celebrating GCSE results. Oddly, it seems to forget to send out any photos of its male students (or its dowdier girls).

Most alarmingly, another (very grand) private school invited the FT education correspondent to an end-of-year sports event. I was, alas, too busy. It was a shame, I was informed by a senior teacher. He said that watching the girls playing sports would have given me a unique opportunity to pick out promising candidates for A-level day pictures.

Balanced reporting

The big story about A-levels this year will be the fact that as many as 200,000 aspirant students could be denied a university place. So the real scandal about A-level results day coverage is not going to be the preponderance of pretty girls. It is that the newspapers will tend to run too many happy pictures.

In the interests of balance, the broadsheets should endeavour to take more photographs of young people crying. And more photos of disappointed people who got into their third-choice institution. I will not be pleased unless I see lots of photos of young people visibly worrying at making do with what their parents think is a “Mickey Mouse course” at a “jumped-up former polytechnic”.

Also, I’d like a bit more balance in the presentation of how happy A-level students behave. As the excellent “Sexy A-levels” blog documented at some length last year, photographers seem to think that a very large proportion of young women react to success in exams by jumping in the air while brandishing their exam results. These successful students also seem to go in for a lot of hugging, and standing about in groups, studying their results while ignoring lurking cameramen.

I am not entirely confident that this accurately reflects how teenagers behave. Where are the pictures of delighted recipients being thrown out of pubs for being worse for wear at 3pm? Where are the photos of kids celebrating by sitting on swings in their local parks while swigging on cans of cider and Special Brew? A-level results day may be one of the few days when journalists do not demonise young people.

Photo paranoia

As a rule, the state sector tends to be a lot less pushy about promoting its good-looking students. In fact, it tends to be paranoid about allowing journalists to even see children. Far from offering children to be snapped, one state school in Birmingham asked me to prove I had passed a Criminal Records Bureau check before they would allow me through the door. Fair enough, you might think. But I was going to be accompanied at all times by school staff when I was on the premises.

Furthermore, I was, in fact, only there to look at the asbestos panels used throughout this school’s buildings (a particularly fine example of the style known as West Midlands dilapidation). And, crucially, my visit took place during the Easter holidays. There were no children at the school on the day in question.

It gets worse. Even after I presented my credentials, photographs of the asbestos panels were not allowed. The risk that a child might break into the building, sprint past waiting members of staff and hurl themselves into shot was presumably very real indeed.

christopher.cook@ft.com

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