Media accounts of school performance: Practices of accountability

Year: 2015

Author: Baroutsis, Aspa

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Media organisations often assume they have a pivotal role in ensuring public accountability. This paper investigates the experiences of school leaders in regional schools in Queensland, Australia, and their perceptions of the media accounts that are used to report on school performance. The region is identified as one seriously impacted by economic restructuring, resulting in a community that had historically been relatively affluent becoming ‘disadvantaged’.
Conceptually, the paper is framed around the notion of accountability. This is theorised in terms of media understandings of ‘holding power to account’ that align with reportage about schools that focus on test-based, top-down, vertical accountability practices. It is argued that instead of holding governments to account, reportage practices in newspapers tend towards acts of surveillance that focus society’s gaze on schools. That is, if the media were actually holding power to account, government performance in education governance would be severely scrutinised and schools would be supported through a media insistence that governments guarantee human and material resources to support schools; what Darling-Hammond refers to as ‘opportunity to learn standards’ as part of an intelligent and reciprocal accountability system.
The paper draws on two data sets: interview data from 16 school leaders at eight primary and secondary schools in the region; and newspaper data from The Courier Mail, a Queensland newspaper, and the NewsMail, a regional Queensland newspaper drawing on reportage in the Wide Bay Burnett region. The school leaders identify their perceptions of the themes or ‘frames’ associated with newspaper reportage about school performance, and newspaper data provide examples of this reportage and its framing by the press. Entman’s framing theory was used to analyse the data, focusing on choices made by the newspapers with regard to the selection of salient aspects of a story. Three frames are identified in reference to school performance: those frames that rank performance such as through the use of league tables; frames that decontextualize performance isolating it from individual school circumstances and levels of funding; and frames that residualise government schools. To conclude, the paper presents a more hopeful message; the possibility of reimagining the relationship between the media and schools from one that focuses on vertical accountability practices that function as mechanisms of regulation, to that of bottom-up and horizontal accountability practices that work towards building community networks of mutual trust, responsibility, and collaboration.