Home, James!

A day in the life of an education journalist

It was only four weeks ago, in a blog for this site, that my colleague, Jo, ruminated on the return to the office. Back in those sanguine days of early September – as the Covid threat began to ease – the government announced it was time for sheltering office workers to reunite once more around the water cooler. How premature all that preparation now seems.

So, for what may be another six months, I am a journalist from my kitchen. If like me you live in a 21st-century apartment, you’ll appreciate that an open-plan flat doesn’t offer much in the way of choice when it comes to setting up an at-home workstation: 10 feet to the left and I’m in my lounge, 10 feet to my right and I’m in my hallway.

Here are the phases of an average day in the life of a kitchen journalist.

6:30 am

My alarm goes. I dwell semi-conscious on the pillow for a few minutes before dragging myself around the bed and out to the kitchen, carrying my phone with me as I do. I punch the double shot button of my coffee machine and begin to flick through my emails, Twitter and the national news sites. With local lockdowns to monitor, my work as an education journalist has never seemed broader than it does today. At any moment, new national rules and restrictions could fundamentally change the way our sector works, and we have to keep abreast of the details.

We keep an eye on a lot of moving parts – and it starts with a lot of staring at a phone. I go over my calendar and check the usual channels for any upcoming statements, hearings, announcements or calls to cover through the day. I start deleting the emails I don’t need and marking the ones that could prove useful later.

7:00 am

I try to do something active. I have tried to incorporate something physical into my morning to counter the periodical slumps that spending extended periods in the same four walls can provoke. I’m not showing off – it usually only lasts 15 minutes and ends in me panting heavily over well-buttered toast. Sometimes I feel so awake, I sit down and start writing something. If it is a consequential morning – and there have been more of those dawns since March than I can now remember – I will start working.

7:30 am

I wonder where an hour has gone. Without the pressure of a commute to motivate me, I wonder how I was ever able to mobilise, eat, wash, style my hair, dress, re-dress and leave my house by 7:30 am. Even though my colleagues for the day will be my kitchen cupboards, I try my best to pretend I’m getting ready for polite society. Sometimes delivery men come to the door – and I do feel ashamed to answer their knocks at 3pm in shorts and an XXL boat party t-shirt from my 18th birthday holiday to Mykonos.

8:00 am

I sit down at my desk, but after a hectic 8-foot journey from the closet to the desk, I’ve managed to lose my second coffee, my phone and my glasses.

8:02 am

I sit down again, having found my personal effects, and begin writing the most significant stories of the day. I will send stories through to my editors to review before they’re published.

9:30 am

I have a call with the editorial team. With digital events, webinars, features and three titles to consider, these meetings frequently last half an hour. I try my best to be silly on the Zoom call.

11:00am

The most important stories of the day are written. I now switch on some music – but it depends very much on my mood on what I choose. Sometimes I need to chair-dance along to a bouncy Britney bop. When I have a feature to write, I will put on some classical music to help me concentrate. I also find thumping electronic music kicks my brain into a supreme, almost preternatural, state of concentration.

1:30 pm

I have lunch, more coffee, a good sing-along and catch up on my phone. There are usually 100 or so messages from WhatsApp groups (friends helpfully dissecting every element of one another’s love lives). There will be one short (and strangely spaced) text signed ‘Love from Dad’. Then a series of messages from my Mum that include one of the following: a note about a random family member getting better/pregnant/a new house/married again or a reminder of a birthday/anniversary that she thinks I’ll forget. She then sends an array of times and dates when she would like to ring me on her shift break.

2:00pm

Committees, parliamentary sessions or press conferences often kick off around this time. Stand by afternoon stories.

3:00pm

Embargoed stories begin to drift in for tomorrow morning. These need to be researched and written before the end of the day, ready to be published after midnight.

4:00pm

The rush begins to get stories uploaded. I also try to reply to emails received during the day.

5:00pm

As the end of the day draws near, fate guarantees that a major press release (for immediate release) drops into my mailbox. Two government departments govern the education sector, but there are also multiple research funding bodies, sector bodies, regulators and assiduous trade unions to monitor. In such a fast-paced era, it is not uncommon for one of these organisations to release an 11th-hour statement. It is time to get comfortable.

6:00pm

I like to finish the day by writing a to-do list for tomorrow. Usually, at this point, my mind has turned to dinner. Sitting in the kitchen all day makes it easier to be culinarily ambitious – I can address little tasks throughout the day, which makes preparation come the evening that much simpler. I move my many work notepads up to the far end of my table to clear a space for crockery. I tidy the room and water the plants, before getting changed from my work clothes into that XXL t-shirt with Mykonos 2012 on the back.

Sounds bizarre, but I then try to re-enter the room, dim the lighting, and pretend I am in a completely new space. I often listen to a podcast while I make food – sometimes about education, but often, about politics in general. The other day I was listening to a podcast about meritocracy, which then strayed into a discussion about university admission reform. Journalism has taught me that you can never have too much hinterland. I may be an education journalist, but the sector does not perpetuate in a hermetically sealed zone. I try to remember that there is no piece of information that might not, at some point, become useful.

I write this as the government’s scientists attempt to hypothesise the next steps of the pandemic. The next six months look uncertain – but one thing is: my kitchen and I are quite comfortable together every day. But don’t worry, I’ve not yet reached the point of talking to the kitchen.

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