Can the school magazine survive the social media age?

    4 September 2019

    After all these years its pages smell distinctly fusty and its rusting staples are hanging on by a thread. But there is something about flicking through an old school magazine that jolts the past back into the present in a way nothing else quite can.

    More than four decades on, there they still are: those apparently trivial but meaningful events that punctuated my and my schoolmates’ formative years, faithfully chronicled for all time. The doings of the sixth-form committee that ran weekly tea parties for the elderly are painstakingly recorded. A report of a field trip to Warwick sits alongside details of a junior school production of Antigone.

    Long-forgotten faces from my girls’ grammar school swim into view as I turn the pages. Their names are rendered simply as an initial followed by a surname and a year (P. Clarke, 2S, A. Green, LVIR), but suddenly I can recall them all.

    Details of O- and A-level results, Associated Board music exams and hockey fixtures jockey for position with the news of a pupil who has become the first woman ever to win an Open Scholarship to a particular Oxford college. The school orchestra has tackled the challenging overture to Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in a local music festival.

    It all sounds like something from another world, and in many ways it is — a nostalgic combination of innocence and seriousness, as perhaps we ourselves were. Certainly, the way teenagers conduct their lives and interact with each other and the adults around them has changed beyond recognition since then.

    That being the case, is there any place in today’s social media age for the traditional school magazine? Or has it been swept away — along with my old school’s velour hats, deportment badges and brown shoes with heels no higher than an inch — on a brash, digital tide of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat?

    The answer, from those involved in producing the 21st-century versions of the school magazine is, perhaps surprisingly, an overwhelmingly positive one. Even as our lives are conducted increasingly online, the idea of a printed publication created by pupils for a small but highly engaged community of peers, parents and teachers is, it seems, not only alive but well and thriving.

    ‘Every year we are bowled over by the verve and intelligence of the writing and design we find in journalism produced by schools,’ says Alison Strachan, chair of the country’s only annual competition for pupil-created newspapers, magazines, podcasts and websites, the Shine School Media Awards. ‘We receive a wealth of fantastic publications from a wide range of educational establishments — from local government-run centres for pupils who are not thriving in mainstream education to some of the country’s best-known independent schools.’ Among the entries for the recent 2019 competition, says Strachan, a number of themes cropped up again and again: concerns over domestic and international politics, the environment, self-image and mental health.

    Kate Nichols, assistant head at the 1,600-pupil City of Norwich School, believes that the role of the school magazine is a crucial one. As part of the cohort of students starting university this autumn with the uncertainty of Brexit hanging over them, her recent leavers are, she says, apprehensive about their futures — an anxiety they have been able to express through the pages of their magazine.

    ‘They get a huge amount out of being part of it,’ she says. ‘From researching undergraduate-level articles to understanding the importance of engaging with the public and working with younger members of the school community.’ So dedicated are her editorial team that they raise money themselves to pay for the publication to be printed professionally.

    ‘Being involved with the school magazine really gets them noticed when it comes to their personal statements for their UCAS forms, too — they stand out from the crowd,’ adds Nichols, who was in 2018 named the Shine Awards’ inspirational teacher of the year for her role in helping set up her school’s hugely successful publication. ‘You can’t get that from sitting at home watching YouTube videos.’ Pupil-produced magazines have been part of the fabric of Britain’s schools for decades and sometimes more — literally, in the case of Forest School in Snaresbrook, east London. When its handsome dining hall was built in 1886, a copy of the latest school magazine, established in 1865, was buried in the foundations.

    Eton’s first school magazine was produced two years earlier, in 1863, and continues to this day. Spanning such a long period of time, many of its editions are, inevitably, filled with news of old boys and staff lost to the Boer War and the 20th century’s devastating conflicts.

    ‘Owing to the war a very large number of boys have not returned,’ reads one painfully sad item in 1914, while a report of the death of Queen Victoria in an issue of January 1901 is also particularly poignant. ‘Nowhere is the gap left by Queen Victoria more felt than at Eton,’ it reads.

    Other pupil publications have been a vehicle for the early oeuvres of highly talented people who may not yet have decided which particular area they will pursue. Marlborough College’s magazine from 2006 contains illustrations from alumnus and comedian Jack Whitehall, while a 1913 issue of the magazine of Cherbourg School, near Malvern, carries the first published poem — ‘Quam Bene Saturno’ — of C.S. Lewis, then 14.

    Some have witty titles, some double up as glossy recruitment tools with which to woo prospective parents; others are little more than a few sheets of A4 paper stapled together in the corner. But the important thing is they are all examples of the transformative power of school journalism, says Sharon Maxwell Magnus, head of media in the school of humanities at the University of Hertfordshire.

    An impassioned advocate of the genre, she believes that working on the school magazine offers pupils the chance to hone skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. ‘It gives young people the chance to express themselves and to write about the things that really matter to them in a permanent form,’ she says. ‘It offers the opportunity to lead, to manage and to work in teams.’

    Above all, says Maxwell Magnus, who herself ‘fell in love’ with journalism after seeing an article she had written published in her school magazine, pupils learn about working to a deadline. ‘If you miss it, you are letting down the whole team,’ she says.

    ‘You learn about working under pressure as part of a community and as an individual, and about using your powers of persuasion. If, as a teacher, you were inventing something to give your pupils all-round life skills, you would invent the magazine.’

    For Terry Mansfield, the former chief executive of National Magazines, writing an article for his school newspaper — produced on five sheets of rationed paper on a Gestetner printer shortly after the second world war — was the springboard for his glittering 60-year journalistic career.

    ‘I fantasised at the age of 15 that I was going to be a famous journalist,’ he remembers. ‘I would discover at least a triple murder, stop the presses, get my story on the front page and get the girl.’

    Clearly the school magazine has come a long way since its early days. Indeed, with their superb graphics, expert photography and powerfully argued articles, today’s versions are often virtually indistinguishable from a professional product.

    But just as my lovely old magazines from the 1970s are an irreplaceable snapshot of a moment in time, so too are today’s. From a schoolboy’s reaction to the death of the monarch in 1901 to a thoughtful piece about living with adolescent mental health issues more than 100 years later, they are a written record of young people’s reactions to the world about them, and as such an invaluable piece of social history.

    The content may be different — more personal, less square, less staid, more beautifully designed. But in many ways nothing has really changed.

    The Shine School Media Awards is run annually by the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. For details of the 2020 competition and how to set up a school magazine, visit