Back to School… An Opportunity Wasted?

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The first day of school always gets media attention, with coverage of how children react to going to school for the first time.  The day offers the opportunity to cover children taking a big step in their lives.  Past coverage has included many images to show children’s reaction to this event.  In the interest of children’s rights in the media, various print mediums[1]  were examined during the first week of schools opening for 2010 (13-17 January 2010), to explore the coverage dedicated to the event.

How the return to school was covered

The media has great power to shape perceptions. With that power comes a great responsibility because, when used carelessly, it can have negative effects on the way people view the world around it. Articles on back to school were analysed with this in mind to investigate image created of children and the issues that are, or should be, important when looking at the first day of school.

The majority of articles focused on the following issues.
– Registration: It was apparent that many parents in most provinces did not register their children on time and delayed progress on the first day, as their children were not registered to attend school.
– Lack of infrastructure: Some articles took advantage of the opportunity to show how infrastructure was lacking in different schools.
– School supplies, whether they were delivered on time for the start of school or not.
Many of these articles,  mentioned the profiled schools’ pass rates, linking them to the above issues and how they could’ve affected their performance.

The number and diversity of articles talking these issues are a good indications that the media not only took an interest in children on their first day, but used the opportunity to tackle important issues around education.

An estimated 3,4%2, people live with disabilities in South Africa.In line with the general dearth of coverage of people with disabilities, very only one story in the period focused on disabled pupils, whether in mainstream or specialised schools. In the midst of all the other difficulties facing schools, they are expected to take “all reasonable measures in ensuring that physical facilities at public schools are accessible to disabled persons3.  Additional challenges are experienced by people with disabilities, with only 24,6% of people with disabilities get a matric by age 20. The one story about people with disabilities was “Deaf school’s new principal rises to challenge,” (The Star, 15/01/2010, p. 8), which profiled the first deaf principal at St Vincent’s School for the Deaf. The article also reported on some of the issues that the school faced like classroom capacity, ideal subjects it would like to offer to its pupils and difficulties finding a full-time interpreter to liaise with people outside the school.

In the context of matric results and the education system

The appalling matric results, with 230 000 (60.6%) Grade 12s, failing matric in 2009 made headlines in the week prior to the opening of school.  Given this, MMA sought to discover whether print media managed to communicate this to its readers and draw parallels between the catastrophe and its symbolism to the millions of children who started their first day of school?

Words like “Back to Basics,” “failure”, “disgrace”, “ailing education”, “chaos” and “turn around plan” ruled the headlines during the first week of “Back to School.” Few stories drew parallels between the optimistic children entering school, or the various problems found at different schools to the matric results.  Most items were in fact the three editorials during the time that gave more depth information and drew parallels between them and their significance to the first day of school. This is not particularly suprising as it is usually the editors’ job to give depth to issues in the media and clarify their significance.

However, in exploring the various challenges faced by schools, the context of the matric results, which present a failure on the part of the education system and presents the possible future for these scholars.

Images of first day jitters? – imaging children

The first day of school typically is an opportunity for photo-ops. Photos are a way to capture the drama and excitement of the day.  They can emphasise the excitement of a new experience or the trauma of being away from home or a caregiver. The way in which they are pictured on their first day of school, shapes the public’s perception of this event, whether it is traumatic or exciting. Children can also be shown as brave or powerless in the middle of these events, depending on the angle of the photographs and the expressions of the children photographed. Pictures were analysed with this in mind:

• 50% of pictures depicted children who were either happy or seemingly at ease;
• 26% had children who were crying, seemingly sad or photographed from a high angle (which has the effect of making the subject look small and vulnerable);
• 24% fell in the middle, not concentrating on the children, but communicating messages related to the schools or education, like a lack of infrastructure, or other issues like registration.

A picture that stood out as a nomination for a MAD OAT Mad came form Daily Sun, “Get me out of here!” (14/01/2010, p. 1). The picture portrayed a kicking and screaming child who was dragged by teachers to school. Considering the child’s confusion and trauma, this was clearly not the best way to portray him, even though the paper did go back to check up on him the following day and published a picture of him smiling at his desk.

Providing a name, in this instance, may be in the child’s best interest. When a child is positively portrayed in the media, or associated with a big step in the lives of many children.  Children may feel proud to be in the media. Not providing a name can suggest that there is something more important, beyond that person’s identity that should be of interest, consequently making him/her subordinate. Pictures were also monitored with this notion in mind.

• 46% of children were named in the photographs;
• 44% either had no names or were generalised as a group of “pupils” or children. This is representative of a lack of interest in children as individuals.
• 10% depicted infrastructure and other messages.

Conclusion

Coverage of children on their first day of school was mostly good, with media taking the opportunity to highlight problems with various schools, but in generally not connecting the event with the poor matric results missed the opportuntity to refer to systemic problems with the Department of Education.  Other difficulties faced by, in particular, children with disablilities were neglected, which is a pity, since this is a clear opportunity to cover people with disalbilties, which is generally so neglected in media.  However, the annual coverage that this event gets provides an opportunity to examine children and issues of importance to them.

Ayabulela Poro and Sandra Roberts

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Footnotes

1 Business Day; City Press; Daily Sun; Mail and Guardian; Saturday Star; Sowetan; Sunday Sun; Sunday Times; The Citizen; The Star; Sunday Independent; The Weekender; and Sunday World.
2 Statistics South Africa. 2008. General Household Survey
3  Section 12 of the South African Schools Act in Department of Education. 2009. Guidelines for Full-Service/Inclusive Schools 2009.

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