In 2018, the BBC’s education correspondent Sean Coughlan wrote a story about a school that had 300 holes in its roof. For this article, I spoke to Sean about that school, and why he thinks stories are so important for getting people’s attention.
Back in 2018, I arranged to meet with Sean Coughlan, the BBC’s education correspondent.
As I was working in Teach First’s PR team, this was a meeting that I was looking forward to. Done well, it was a meeting which I was sure would lead to a gluttony of wonderful coverage for the charity I was working at.
Keen to impress, I spent ages in the lead up to that meeting revising all of the stats, facts and figures that I thought would awe Sean. I could then picture Sean frantically scribbling away everything I’d have to share with him with when we eventually met.
But when the meeting came, I sensed very quickly that Sean wasn’t that interested in what I had to say; the startling percentages and ratios I’d committed to memory just weren’t piquing his interest.
After a while, he told me about the things he preferred to cover – including one story about a school with 300 holes in the ceiling.
Sean’s interest in that school surprised me. Truth be told, it struck me as a minor anecdote – not a story deserving of national coverage.
In my previous work experiences as a press and media person, I’d always been led to believe that it was stats, facts, figures and spokespeople that led to coverage. Indeed, so much of the coverage I’d leveraged over the years had relied on those things.
But then I went away and reflected on the conversation with Sean, why that story had struck such a chord with him – and why I needn’t have bothered revising all those stats, facts and figures. At the same time, I thought more about the variety of times I’d hit a wall when pitching to journalists.
In a nutshell, I realised that I hadn’t grasped the wonderful power of great stories.
That realisation led to two things.
Firstly, an incredible ability to entertain colleagues at any given moment about why that story was so good. And secondly, a fascination with stories, curious anecdotes and surprising thoughts.
Fast forward to 2020, and I was delighted to speak to Sean about the school with 300 holes in its roof. And why stories like this are so important for clarifying the complex issues out there.
“We have a lot of stories about school funding. We know it’s an issue that is politically significant, and we know that it affects lots of families and young people.
“But after a while, the big numbers and billions of pounds that you get with those kinds of stories don’t always connect. What does it actually mean for you when you see those figures and facts?
“This school emerged as an example that distilled some of the big issues in education. It let us zoom in on some specific examples that people could relate to and understand, even if they don’t engage with big problems like school funding.
“That’s because all of us can visualise a hole in the roof; all of us have had holes in our roofs at some point.
“As holes are things you can easily visualise, it all worked well for TV and online. But it also opened up a conversation beyond the narrow debate between teaching unions, political groups and the government. It became something much more public and accessible.
“That’s because it starts with immediate clarity about what the story is about, before moving into something more complex – including wider funding challenges in school, as well as issues with business and other education initiatives.”
“It was brave of the school to let us come in and scrutinise them. But they’ve been in touch ever since to say that their involvement was a good thing.
“Indeed, so many people have been supportive of the school.
“Because the story got such a good audience online and on TV, many individuals came forward to help financially – especially in terms of music lessons.
“Most subject areas are on a carousel, so the challenge is to make them relevant time and time again.
“Add to that the fact that there’s a narrow window to get people’s interests – both when it comes to audiences and journalists. Often because there’s so many other stories you could read.
“It’s even more difficult when you consider that so many of us use our phones to stay updated on the news and emails. Which means that you have smaller screens and less words to grab people’s attention and get emotional buy-in.
“Analysis can work well. But getting peoples’ attention works much better it there’s a story with characters and narrative.”
Sean Coughlan is the BBC’s education correspondent. To see more of his work, visit the BBC’s website.