Docusoaps can dish the dirt

As schools open their doors to the BBC, new research reveals why heads may be better off being camera shy. Michael Shaw reports

HEADS have been told to be wary of the current craze for reality TV. The warning comes as schools face growing offers to appear in fly-on-the-wall documentaries and on news programmes such as BBC1's Breakfast, which last week broadcast live each morning from a secondary school in Hertfordshire.

Academics from Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities suggest that a film crew may impede a school's progress, especially if it is undergoing major changes or has new or insecure leadership.

In the first of a series of studies, the group examined the BBC2 fly-on-the-wall documentary Head on the Block, which followed the opening of the Islington arts and media school, the Fresh Start secondary which was formerly the failing George Orwell school, in 1999.

They found that the programme had "overtones of negativity", and that the presence of the cameras may have exacerbated the school's difficulties.

Co-author Dr Margaret McLay, from Manchester Metropolitan, said she believed the crew had filmed with good intentions, but that the series, and other documentaries on troubled schools, had caused undeniable damage.

"I would not go as far as to say schools should never let in cameras," she said. "But headteachers should work more closely with producers to get an idea what the programme will be like, and try to get some kind of editorial control."

It is a view shared by Janet Lewis, head of Sandringham school in St Albans, although she was delighted by her television appearances. Each morning last week her secondary hosted a live section of BBC1 Breakfast programme with presenter Gaby Roslin.

Mrs Lewis said she had been careful to check the programme's tone before agreeing to it. She said: "I knew it was going to be at the fluffy end of the news. I would have have been much more wary if it had been a straight documentary. We are trying to become an arts college, so media involvement is important.

"The first lessons of the morning were a bit wobbly because of the filming, but the crew kept the disruption to a minimum and it has been a highly positive experience."

Mrs Lewis added that visiting celebrities had often stayed behind to talk with pupils, who were excited to meet such figures as designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and model Melinda Messenger.

The BBC denied Head on the Block was distorted, insisting the programme was a fair portrayal of the school at a particular time.

For a copy of "TV Cameras in Schools" email m.mclay@mmu.ac.uk

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