In My Opinion: Catherine Deveney: Schools project exactly where the NUJ should be

EVEN as an outsider to the Highland school, it was clear to me that the silent young boy sitting slightly apart from the others was a loner.

He was too shy to read aloud the descriptive sentence he had written during the training session being run by the National Union of Journalists. Did he mind if I read it for him? He shook his head. When I finished, there was a heartbeat of silence.

Then something unusual happened. Applause instinctively burst out around the room. The expression on the boy’s face was not just surprise. It was bewilderment. That look told me that this kind of affirmation from classmates did not often come his way.

That story captures why the NUJ has established a major educational pilot project to create media centres in Scotland’s secondary schools.

It’s about working with young people, inspiring them and empowering them.

It’s about informing them of opportunities in the media world.

Some might ask why the NUJ is investing time and energy in schools. Doesn’t the union have enough to do protecting members’ interests, fighting redundancies and trying to safeguard the future of workers across the industry?

But safeguarding the media industry is about creating sustainability. It’s not just about safeguarding today’s jobs. It’s about ensuring there are jobs tomorrow.

The NUJ pilot began in the Highlands, an area that has fewer opportunities than many regions to retain its young people.

But it is far from the backwater some think. There is an openness to creativity and innovation there that stems from having to seize on every opportunity that comes along. Highland Council invested in the development of the project and without them, it simply wouldn’t have happened.

It has been so successful that the NUJ has now received backing from Skills Development Scotland to roll it out across other regions of Scotland.

The aim has been to train both teachers and pupils in basic media skills of news gathering, storytelling and interviewing.

We also deliver technical training that enables schools to create programmes for their own internet radio stations.

For many years, school radio was about fixed stations that became ‘white elephants’. Few teachers   remembered that they were there – and even fewer knew how to use them. This project teaches young people that the modern media world is accessible, portable and flexible. If they have a mobile phone and access to a laptop, they can be amateur journalists.

Digital journalism talks kids’ language. They know about technology, about social media, about mass communication. Following Sir Ian Wood’s report (here) on developing Scotland’s young workforce, schools have been encouraged to create meaningful links with industry.

The NUJ project is not a hit-and-run attempt to tick political boxes. It is a sustained programme of training and support over a number of years that will nurture and support the creative media endeavours of young people.

Now targeted at senior pupils, it is also a breeding ground for the Modern Apprenticeship Digital Journalism programme, encouraging talented young people to train on the job.

This is about more than technology. It’s about people skills. The project also teaches young people about discussion and negotiation, timekeeping and deadlines, and ethical responsibility. Will that young, introverted boy work in the media? Perhaps not.  But in almost every school I have visited, there has been a moment when a young person just like him has sidled up and said quietly, “I think I would like to be a journalist.”

We need to invest in tomorrow’s journalists. There was little to beat the moment in one school when a would-be interviewer demonstrated his skills. His friend was playing the part of Mr Jones, an elderly bereaved man. The interviewer, aged 13, sat down quietly opposite him and said sincerely, “I am sorry for your loss, Mr Jones. I want to thank you for talking to me.”

The room went quiet. With tact, maturity, and a whole lot of empathy, the young interviewer asked the questions that would enable him to write his story. It was a moment when I knew that this school, this classroom, this project, was exactly where the NUJ should be.

Catherine Deveney is a journalist, author, and part-time training project worker for the NUJ.