The Context

As a society, we all now recognise the term ‘fake news’. Opinions published as fact, deliberate stories to mislead, personal agendas using misinformation to get a ‘win’, and the over-reaction, quick-to-anger, and abuse that follow this around.

We have seen Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’, British politics is increasingly full of it, and of course social media – often a force for great good – but at times the architect of lies, misdirection, shaming and aggressive condemnation. More worryingly, the BBC report that only 2% of children can spot ‘fake news’.

Our children are growing up in this crazy world. It is very different to the one that we as parents grew up in. They are more savvy on TikTok, Instagram, and more, than we are, but this means they are more likely to face ‘fake news’. Furthermore, grabbing their attention amidst peer pressure and the bombardment of messages on this matter would be tough. We needed to do something special, we needed to make them stop and think.

We can either prepare our children to stand firm against the ‘fake news’, to be smart enough to spot ‘half-truths’, and be quick to calm and to step-back so they have the time to see the lies, or at best partial truths, for what they are. Alternatively, we can let them go on alone, possibly to figure it out for themselves, or possibly to become submerged in the hate and lies which have sucked others in.

As a school we go for the former. Parents who know us would instantly recognise we’ll take up a challenge and we are always ready to go bold.


The Approach

We decided to set up some ‘fake news’ stories about our school on a Friday afternoon – just early enough to give it a chance to spread before the end of the day. We would do it through out website, our social media platforms, and via posters in the school.

The video on our website set out the ‘changes’ for September: vegetarian / vegan meals, Sunday School, the dropping of art, music and drama, and tartan trousers to match the skirts. Of course, the chance that these would all be announced 8 days before the end of term was zero, and this was our first prompt to ask if this was ‘fake news’, but there was enough of a link to what we already do that some students would bite.  

You can view the initial video here.

There were plenty of other clues there too. The students had been told it was Fake News Week in advance as far back as September and there were posters up advertising it as well. The video was deliberately dubbed badly so that the words being spoken did not remotely match the lip movement. Fake news can be very well-disguised, some of it less so, and ours definitely fell into the latter camp.

The plan was to let it run over the weekend then open our Fake News Focus Week with a video reveal of ‘The Friary Fake News Scandal’ on the Monday morning. The learning point would have been there, the week would go with a BANG, and no-one would miss the key message.

We knew there would be a parent reaction – daily experience told us many get involved – so we would address any calls with a: ‘Don’t worry – all will be revealed on Monday’.

You can view the ‘Monday morning’ video here.


The Immediate Reaction

The students spread the news like wildfire from the posters, our student office runners spread the news too, and staff (who were overwhelmingly not in the loop) saw through it immediately and the video went up in lessons creating more fuss. This escalated as classes came out and saw the ‘fake news’ posters – crowds gathered, some laughing, others confused, one or two worried. Senior staff were by the posters to stymy any upset, but there too to let children stop and think it through. Many got it, lots were nudged to the realisation, others reeled off photos to send to parents, others dashed out to buses and cars to spread the news. The ‘changes’ quickly hit the Year 9 residential trip in the Peak District and tartan trouser images flashed through the minds of those abseiling down bridges and deep in underground caves. Fake news was running away…

And what about parents ? Well, the video was posted at about 3.15pm and within 15 minutes the phones were red hot. Many were calm and accepted the ‘don’t worry’, a lot laughed and had spotted the ‘fake news’ immediately, others momentarily fell for the ruse before clicking, and a small minority leapt to anger and had lost their temper before we even picked up. By 4.00pm the viewing figures had raced up like a F1 speedo at over 200 video views. 


The Change of Plan

Every upset parent takes up a lot of time – our most precious resource – but naturally we thoroughly check all concerns. In fact, they are often based on partial information, individual interpretations, and of course ‘fake news’ – part of the reason for our Focus Week – but again it is vital they are all explored. When they are coupled with aggression the situation is a hundred times worse. Consequently, the anger of some parents on the ‘fake news’ stories was such that it was potentially going to be counter-productive in terms of us getting ready for the new term and for running through the last days with the Summer Sizzler, Inflatable Day, Dodgems Day, work experience, and more besides.

With heaps to do – and perhaps images of a pitch-forked mob coming up the school drive – we made the decision to calm things by taking down the original video and releasing the Monday video reveal early. In some ways this was a shame, but the reaction was going to be a learning point anyway. Interestingly no children had responded in the way some parents had.

The video removal calmed things, Twitter and Facebook messages were sent out to further soothe nerves, and things settled. The Headteacher could even go out for dinner with friends in Lichfield without worrying facing reprisals.


What Happened Next ?

As time passed more and more parent messages appeared on Facebook, Twitter and via email which said that the approach had been a smart and clever way to teach a valuable lesson. There was lots of self-deprecating humour about snap reactions, lots of parents keeping the tales going with their children out of their own mischief, and others who simply saw that grabbing children’s attention on this was only a good thing.

It was clear many parents had spotted how things had panned out so we then wrote this article to lay out the whole story – sharing what had happened and where we were going with this.


And Next Week ?

The whole escapade will be explored with the students next week in tutor times to teach the ‘fake news’ lesson. The videos will be revisited, the reactions shared, the skills and temperament needed for modern life discussed, and the approach on how to negotiate the online world and day-to-day school formed.

A school’s job is to prepare children for the world they face – this may be formal exams – but it may be the responsibilities for the environmental around them, the responsibilities in looking after their mental health, the responsibilities to support tolerance and equality, and the responsibilities to deal with ‘fake news’ sensibly.


To End

We are sorry that a small minority got upset, worried or angry from this method of teaching. We’re thrilled that so many more parents bought into it and helped build on the buzz. We hope everyone will stop and think about how they reacted. We hope families will discuss what can be learnt from the furore. If you want to get your children to think about ‘fake news’ some more then the BBC Bitesize video here is a good one.

All of us with teenagers know they have a lot to negotiate and that at times lessons can be slow to be learnt. Our Fake News Week is there to help them cope with today’s world and our fake news reports were there to provide the spark. You can form your own view on whether they provided a spark and whether the ends justify the means.

Finally, always remember too that you can tune in for more news about The Friary on the school’s website and social media – but take care – we might be doing another Fake News Week.