A reel inspiration

A scheme that enables schools to produce their own documentaries and keep DVDs of classroom life is benefiting teachers, and can give parents an insight into their child’s learning
16th March 2012, 12:00am


A reel inspiration


The long journey that brought Class Movies from Australia to North Ayrshire began in the attic of his mum’s house in Sydney, says Phillip Lewis.

“When I was putting insulation in her roof I discovered an old tin of film taken by my dad, who had passed away on my fourth birthday. I had no memory of him,” he says.

“But there, in this rusty old tin, were the last 10 years of his life and the first four years of mine, with him. Watching those films connected me to my father. I’ll never forget it.”

It was a discovery that set the successful banker, an executive director at Morgan Stanley, on a new and unplanned path, he says. “I’d had no film experience, but I started filming my own family, not at high points like birthday parties, but quietly in the background. I filmed my kids just being themselves. I wanted them to have the same gift I’d had from my dad.”

The shift from hobby to vocation began when Mr Lewis’ son first went to primary school, and he realised that large parts of his life would now go undocumented.

“He was moving from my world into a teacher’s. I wanted to know what they could do about documenting that. The answer I got was not much.

“So I started working on the idea of a programme that would let classrooms produce their own documentaries.”

In this way, Class Movies began as a simple way for individual parents to see what their children were doing in school. Ten years later, with more than 4,000 professional school documentaries done in Australia and England, and a pilot project in Scotland, it’s much more than that.

“A huge number of our pupils have been involved,” says Mary-Rose Martin, headteacher at Ardrossan Academy in North Ayrshire. “The way it works is we get a pack telling us exactly what to do, then our teachers film what’s happening in their classes over a period of a week. We send the results to Australia, to be edited by experts, and they send us back high-quality DVDs.”

These can be used in a variety of ways to benefit the school. They can demonstrate good practice. They can be shown to parents who want an insight into their children in the classroom. Pupils in associated primaries can watch them to get a flavour of life at the big school.

“We’ve decided to work on two films at the same time,” says Mrs Martin. “The first focuses on the classroom, while the second is about the wider school and the range of extra-curricular activities we run.”

The Scottish pilot of Class Movies came about through a meeting between Mr Lewis and former Aberdeenshire director of education Hamish Vernal, then working for Croydon council’s education department, where Class Movies was being piloted.

“I was impressed,” says Mr Vernal. “It’s a commercial enterprise, but it is deeply educational. So five of us, former directors of education and a headteacher, have formed a new company and signed an agreement to market Class Movies in the UK.”

At James McFarlane School in the Ardrossan cluster, headteacher Alison Clark has particular reasons for being enthusiastic about the new project, she says. “We’re a special school for pupils with additional support needs arising from complex learning difficulties.

“Most people don’t know what goes on in a school like ours. So we were keen to record what we do, by filming the whole school and showing how we make progress with our children.”

Parents have their own concerns at home, she says. “So it’ll be great for them to see what school can bring to their youngsters, and watch them engaged in activities they just couldn’t do at home. By covering the whole school from 5 to 18, we can show the progress children make in their time here.

“It’ll also be good for our pupils to see themselves on a big screen. Ours are often very visual learners. It will help them to recall things they’ve done. That’s something they often struggle with.”

The information pack schools get to prepare for their week of filming explains everything they need to know, says depute headteacher Paul McIvor. He is doing a fair bit of the filming of pupils and teachers at James McFarlane, and has some experience of making movies, he says.

“There’s a DVD in the pack you get that takes you through the whole process,” he explains. “It’s just eight minutes long, which is good. One difference from what I’m used to is they recommend you to hold the video camera in one hand down here.”

He demonstrates with the camera held loosely, unobtrusively at hip height. “That takes a little getting used to. It’s a good idea, because it’s at the right level for the kids and you’re not looking down on the people you’re filming.”

Apart from that, the technical side of filming is straightforward, says Mrs Clark, although a fair bit of planning is needed to ensure everything is captured in one week. “We wanted to give a flavour of the whole school, look at what showed our pupils in the best light and what parents would be interested in. So we worked it out in some detail with our class teachers.”

Senior pupils have been filmed in the cafe, where they each have specific jobs to do. A Burns brunch with parents will be captured for posterity and a country dancing session, six weeks in the planning, should be one of the highlights, says Ms Clark. “It’ll be a great experience for kids and parents to see they can take part in something like that.”

Two very different activities are being filmed today at James MacFarlane, each with its own concerns for the man behind the camera. Keeping it dry is the hardest part in the swimming pool, where a nine-year-old pupil is being firmly supported in the deep end, her face safely out of the water, by two members of staff.

“Come on, Hope, show us how you feel,” says teacher Anne Guthrie - and the youngster obliges with a lovely smile.

“A lot of physiotherapy we do with Hope is underwater, moving her legs and trying to walk,” she explains.

“You can’t get that on film. But you can capture her non-verbal communication - for example, the smiles and eye-contact you get here in the pool, because she’s so relaxed, that you don’t always get in class.”

Next stop on the filming schedule is drier, but presents its own challenges to the cameraman and teacher Lorna Harold, who is delivering an interactive storytelling session with three autistic boys, one of whom decides right away that there are too many people in the room.

“Change is hard for a lot of our children,” she explains, before launching into a lesson with the remaining two kids, first sharing the learning intentions, then asking them to choose, by pointing, the story they want to hear.

When the lift-the-flap book Dear Zoo gets the vote, pupils first choose their favourite animals, then Mrs Harold starts reading, stopping after every sentence for pupils to lift a flap or press a panel for an animal sound.

Pupil choice in lessons is an important feature that James McFarlane aims to capture in their filming, says Mrs Harold. “A lot of our pupils don’t have spoken language. So things are often done for them or to them. We teach in such a way that they develop the ability to make choices for themselves. We’re quite good at that in special education, and personalisation and choice is now part of the curriculum for all school pupils.”

Class Movies is an imaginative concept that gives choices to schools. Teaching children and managing a school take most hours in a day, leaving little for communicating with the outside world. High-quality film can capture the ethos and excitement of a school, the professionalism of staff, the enthusiasm of pupils and the range of learning activities that go on.

“Some teachers already make DVDs of pupils doing school and extra- curricular activities, which they can show to their families,” says Ardrossan Academy headteacher Mary-Rose Martin. “The difference, as I see it, is in the technical expertise and the professional quality of the films we get.

“I don’t consider this a one-off. If it goes well, and it has so far, I would like this filming of what we do in class and out of it - and getting that out to parents and primary schools - as an annual event at Ardrossan Academy.”


Cerys Seaton: “Getting filmed was a bit nerve-wracking, with the camera pointing at you. But I did like it, because I’ve a couple of good friends in Primary 7 and they’re worried about coming up to Ardrossan Academy. They ask me if it’s scary and I say no. The film we’re making will let them see that for themselves.”

Holly Lambert: “I’ve been filmed in the choir, at the homework club and in the jewellery club, where it’s different every week. If I was deciding what to film, I’d also choose the science department. Some people think that’s disgusting, like when we were looking at pigs’ lungs. But doing experiments is exciting and I’d like to show people that.”


Schools that sign up to Class Movies receive a starter pack containing parent consent forms, filming instructions, blank media, checklists, a filming plan and protective packaging to send the raw film to Australia for editing. Once edited, the film can be viewed online and altered in response to feedback from the school.

The pack is aimed at people with no previous filming experience, and teachers in the Scottish pilot confirm that it answers all their questions and gets them smoothly on their way.

A documentary can cost around pound;546, but full details of pricing are on the Class Movies website

www.strategic supportpartner ship.co.ukHVernal.html.

Photo by David Gordon

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