The Daily Mail is still shaming schools

July 29, 2016

Back in January, 2015 I wrote a blogpost about the Daily Mail’s hypocrisy in shaming schools for enforcing their rules. While noticing that they often run stories complaining about a lack of discipline in schools, I observed:

…they also frequently run another type of school discipline story, which consists of disgruntled parents moaning about schools who have stood up to them and enforced the rules on their children. While some of these articles are, perhaps, phrased so as to hear both sides, it is clear that the human interest aspect of the story is provided entirely by the family of the child who was disciplined. Examples include (all found by Googling “Daily Mail excluded”):

Today I had reason to look to see if the Daily Mail was still up to the same trick of reporting complaints about a school from the point of view of the parents, without considering whether the complaints were true or fair.

Sure enough, I found the following:

What the 12 stories have in common, is that grievances from parents are reported as news, with relatively little priority given to finding out if they are true or reasonable. The stories often involve parents who want exceptions made for their child. In some cases, schools have little opportunity to respond about what actually happened because of confidentiality. In some stories, it is simply assumed that a school could make an exception to its rules this one time without any resulting harm to discipline. Often, the stories simply sound like the everyday excuses you hear from students who have forgotten all aspects of their own behaviour except some trivial detail which they now want to argue about.

I haven’t included the story that prompted me to look into this, because for once it is not about the behaviour of a student, but their parent. However, it is still largely in the same category. The Daily Mail reported today that:

A headteacher who made her name at a Tory party conference by claiming Britain’s education was ‘broken’ is forcing children to eat by themselves and restricting food as a punishment for their parents failing to pay for school lunches…

…Critics called the measure at Michaela community school, a secondary free school in Wembley, north London, ‘stigmatising’…

…The sanction emerged in a letter from deputy head Barry Smith to Dionne Kelly, who fell behind on meal payments for her 12-year-old son Reon. It read: ‘The deadline for this term’s lunch payments was 1st June 2016. ‘You are currently £75 overdue. If this full amount is not received within this week your child will be placed into Lunch Isolation.

‘They will receive a sandwich and piece of fruit only. Only when the entire outstanding sum is paid in full will they be allowed into family lunch with their classmates.’

Ms Kelly, an unemployed care worker, said she had already paid the money by the time the letter arrived, but Reon had received the punishment anyway.

She said: ‘I found the letter quite threatening. Isolating children for their parents not paying upfront is degrading. It’s embarrassing for poor families.’

This seems quite a serious complaint, at least in the way that it has been edited. However, in this case, some of the details the school made available to the journalists, that were not included have emerged. According to school the free food provided in isolation is of good quality. According to the school the parent had not approached them about any problems with paying. According to the school, this letter was only sent after the parent had failed to respond to 5 separate requests to talk about the matter. According to the school, the child in the story had never been in lunchtime isolation due to the parent not paying, only for misbehaviour. According to the school, this complaint was one of many from that parent, the rest, presumably so baseless that even the Daily Mail couldn’t make a story of it.

It is probably worth mentioning that this story would probably have quickly disappeared into oblivion like the other 12 stories, if people hadn’t sought to make political capital. Michaela is a free school with a traditionalist ethos and a headteacher who once spoke at Conservative Party conference. Suddenly, the left on social media decided that, despite everything they’d ever said to the contrary, the Daily Mail was an incredibly reliable source and sprung into action, not only taking the story at face value but often exaggerating it in the repetition. Many seemed to be unaware that those in poverty could claim free school meals and one tweeter even claimed that children were being starved.

It’s probably worth admitting that the way Michaela have done things is a bit unusual. Most state secondary schools allow parents to opt out of school dinners (although, in my experience, independent schools often don’t). In theory, those opting out then provide a packed lunch for their child or allow the child to go home for lunch. However, there is usually no way of checking that the packed lunch is provided, or that the child actually goes home and is fed, and it would be naive to believe that children don’t often go hungry in this situation. It’s often a bit of a shock if you go past some schools at lunchtime to see how many of the children “sent home for lunch” are actually just hanging around in the streets with their friends. Michaela are doing something very different in ensuring that the children whose parents won’t feed them are still fed by the school, but separately and in a way that won’t encourage parents not to pay. Perhaps it isn’t the best way to do things, perhaps it’s asking for trouble. Perhaps “stigma” is worse than hunger. But it is not punishing children for parental poverty. It is not obviously something most parents would object to. And it is not even half as worrying as the schools where dozens of kids hang around in the streets for their lunchtime.

Next time the Daily Mail has a go at a school, please take the time to ask how your school would look if the most disgruntled parent you know were given a platform to make unchallenged allegations. And unless you know that your school would come out of it looking great, then I suggest that all those running schools subjected to trial by tabloid be given our sympathy.



  1. Liked this blog a lot and can relate

  2. Good blog Andrew. I’m going to put this out there however. Michaela’ s policy IS a punishment. It’s a punishment directed at the parent through the child. But what else can the school do? It’s ridiculous that they have to try and force a parent to let them feed their own child. That, for me, is the big picture here.
    Don’t get me wrong I will happily argue that more pupils should be entitled to free school meals, and in fact if there is any outrage here it should be about the possibility that some working parents cannot afford to pay for their child’s food, not that a school wants a parent to.

  3. So you have a one sided story here from the school I suggest you speak with the parent before writing bullshit. Reon is my grandson he had been at the school for 4 weeks, from day two he was punished on one pretext or another. This isn’t the half of it more to follow like when they school would not release Reon to his mum, they threatened to call the police because she was demanding he was released, they didn’t but we did and we have a crime ref no to prove it. Check your facts….

  4. Behind this is actually a very interesting and revealing issue about state schooling, which some schools have understood and responded to by giving meal times an important place in school life and organising them in a civilised and orderly way. One of the large secondary TF schools I was a regular visitor to some years ago, had 30mins for lunchtime. I once experimented with this and left the school like most of the kids did for the garage next door, where I queued and bought a sandwich. I was back in school just in time for the afternoon session without having eaten it. Most of the children at that school left the premises, but never ate anything at lunch.

    One of the most damaging management trends of recent years has been the tightening of the school day by heads and senior managers who can’t manage the behaviour of their pupils when they were not in the classroom.

  5. A lot of the outrage about this story is not just on the letter sent home, and the injustice of punishing a child for their parent’s mistake. It is the entire ‘traditionalist ethos’ of the school. The school’s website, their policies and the disturbing blog of the deputy head: https://hackingattheroots.wordpress.com/author/barrynsmith79/

  6. How outrageous of the school to refuse to give people what they haven’t paid for.


    • Taking what you haven’t paid for is theft. Why should the school be punished, rather than the thief?

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  8. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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