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Do only pretty blondes graduate from UK schools?

One of the founders of the "Sexy A-levels" blog told msnbc.com it was born out of a desire "to satirize and poke fun" at the media's coverage of the day high school students get their final report cards.

by Ian Johnston, msnbc.com

LONDON — Based on the coverage in many British newspapers, readers could be forgiven for thinking that the vast majority of students who received their final high school report cards Thursday were pretty blonde girls who are fond of low-cut tops and joyful leaping.

But that, of course, would be wrong, so how could it happen? Amid much soul-searching about standards in the U.K.'s media following the phone-hacking scandal, revelations have emerged about just how low high schools will stoop to collude with the press and compete for publicity on what has become branded "Sexy A-levels" day.

Normally details of how well students have done in their A-level exams — essentially the British equivalent of final exams and SATs combined — lead to newspaper debates over whether the tests have been deliberately made easier to boost the results artificially. The accompanying photographs of good-looking girls with top marks go largely unnoticed.

But this year, Chris Cook, a journalist on the respected and slightly dry Financial Times newspaper, has lifted the lid on some of the rather seedy ways that schools and papers set up the shots.

In an article entitled, "We're just not that kind of newspaper," he detailed a slightly creepy message left by a public relations officer for Badminton School in Bristol, a private school for girls, on his voicemail last year.

'Amazing girls'
"Hi Chris, ... Just wanting to give you some details of some absolutely beyootiful [beautiful, but pronounced with emphasis] girls we've got here who are getting their A-level results tomorrow. Some lovely stories ... they're amazing girls," the message from the unnamed publicist said, according to Cook's article. (The Financial Times operates behind a paywall.)

He also said that Bedales School, a private school for girls and boys, "helpfully supplies photos to journalists."

"Oddly, it seems to forget to send out any photos of its male students (or dowdier girls)," Cook wrote.

He added that a"very grand" private school, which he did not name, had invited a Financial Times staffer to an end-of-year sports event, with a teacher saying that watching the girls would provide a "unique opportunity to pick out promising candidates for A-level day pictures."

The Guardian newspaper, in its live blog Thursday, the day the results came out, said that by about 10 a.m. local time just four out of 45 photographs of students sent in by picture agencies were of boys, a staggeringly low rate of just under 9 percent.

At least one blogger noticed the preponderance of attractive young women in the coverage of annual exam results as far back as 2009.

The blog, called simply "Sexy A-levels", says its purpose is to explore "the hypothesis that U.K. newspapers believe that only attractive girls in low-cut tops do A-levels." The three people behind it note their "growing sense of disquiet."

It lists several pages of pictures from local and national newspapers, mostly of girls, many engaging in the almost obligatory, celebratory group leaps. By Thursday, the blog had been "liked" on Facebook 9,380 times, up from 5,000 last year.

London-based journalist Tom Phillips, one of the people behind the blog, told msnbc.com in an email that the blog was born out of a desire "to satirize and poke fun" at the media's coverage of the results.

'Perving' over teens
He said its main aim was "to be funny," but he stressed was also a serious point. "We do get quite worried that some people seem to be taking it as an endorsement of perving over 18-year-old girls," he said.

Phillips said a large number of Britain's photo editors were likely to be middle-aged men and suggested this might lead to "some subconscious bias" and "to be honest, entirely conscious in some cases."

While there was nothing wrong with "celebrating bright, blonde girls who've excelled academically," Phillips said he felt there should be "a bit more space to celebrate others as well."

Photographers, he added, should also find other ways of illustrating joy at good results than simply "making them jump in the air in a rather unconvincing way."

Phillips said he had noted a change in coverage this year, saying there had been "definitely more boys, less jumping" and even "pictures of people looking miserable."

The front page of Friday's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Sadie Wearing, a lecturer in gender theory, culture and media at the prestigious London School of Economics, told msnbc.com that the newspapers were doing "what papers routinely do, which is to equate women's performance with the way that they look, so that becomes the story."

"This seems to happen even when the story is ostensibly about young women's achievement," she said.

Wearing, who said she had not seen the pictures, said Cook's description of private schools' efforts to get their students in newspapers sounded "particularly distasteful."

It was just one of the signs of the continuing inequality between the genders.

"There's already a story out there that feminism is over; there's no need for it anymore because young women are equal and so on," Wearing said. "It doesn't seem to me that the battle has been won."