Big Brother is listening

27th June 2008 at 01:00
The controversial reality TV show is moving into classrooms with intriguing results, say Dawn Cox and Roy Watson-Davis
The controversial reality TV show is moving into classrooms with intriguing results, say Dawn Cox and Roy Watson-Davis

This is Big Brother. Please come to the diary room." It's a phrase that rings out in sitting rooms the length and breadth of Britain as the reality TV show continues to fascinate the nation. And it's a phrase now heard regularly at my school - Orwell High, an 11 to 18 technology college in Felixstowe, Kent - and at Blackfen, a girls' secondary modern with mixed sixth form in Sidcup, Kent.

We have been using BB-style diary rooms to find out what pupils really think in the first instance about school meals, toilets and rules on mobile phone use.

At Orwell High pupils have been discussing the state of the toilets, while at Blackfen the hot topic is why mobile phones have to be handed in or confiscated at the start of the school day.

The diary room at Orwell High is run by members of the school council, with me in the background. Our diary room is one quiet enough for filming - bright blue with two comfy chairs where pupils can sit while they are speaking.

One of the first ideas pupils wanted to look at was school meals - the quality and cost of the food, what the canteen offered and the convenience of going there at lunchtime.

Tutors and their tutor groups were asked to discuss the topic, ensuring all pupils, whether directly involved or not, had the opportunity to give their opinions. Each tutor group then nominated a couple of volunteers to go to the diary room to record their views.

"Pupil voice is an essential link in school effectiveness," says Peter Tomkins, headteacher at Orwell High. "The difficulty is getting genuine views from across the student body - not just the pupils who want to be involved. Using something familiar from popular culture, which enables pupils to speak their minds, is a superb way of achieving a more representative sample."

Film footage is edited by Alex Stewart, a Year 10 school council member. "I think the diary room indirectly improves pupil attitudes because they realise their voices are being heard," he says.

"They know the school wants to listen to their points of view."

The footage about school meals will be analysed by me, the head and a six-strong team of pupils; the recommendations will be forwarded to the kitchen staff. It will then be shown to the whole school via assemblies so that everyone can see what action has been taken based on the views they expressed.

Pupils have also produced a film about the school's toilets. Their findings on the unpleasant state they are left in and the lack of toilet paper and soap have been presented to the head at a school council meeting. As a result, he has employed facilities supervisors to check the toilets regularly, replenish stocks and clean as appropriate at a cost of about pound;5,000 a year.


Meanwhile, 80 miles away in Sidcup, the Big Brother idea is being supported enthusiastically by Matthew Brown, the Blackfen headteacher. "This project is enabling pupils to have an input into the school and our policies," he says.

Its Big Brother diary room is a cross-curricular project using the sixth form media studies students to do filming, editing and a BB voiceover; the art department painted the BB eye and a class of Year 9 pupils are the interviewees.

The topics are close to the girls' hearts - school uniform and mobile phone use.

Roy Watson-Davis, an Advanced Skills Teacher who is leading the project, says that the key is establishing clear protocols for the film crew and the diary room pupils, so they realise it is not appropriate for them to mention specific teachers or subjects when talking to camera. Also, the media students work to an agreed script to prompt the responses in the diary room.

As a result, pupil comments are focused, sensible and helpful. A DVD of the pilot has been shown to staff, and the pupils' comments will be included in a review of phone rules. Currently, phones have to be handed in at the start of the day or risk confiscation.

Pupils in the diary room were at pains to reassure staff that if they are allowed to keep their phones with them, they would be turned off during lessons - an idea that will help shape the final decision.

Blackfen has built on an idea based on the Big Brother living room discussions. Once again media students are the film crew, but this time smaller groups talk about issues.

A group of six pupils have discussed the school environment and experiences at Blackfen for a DVD to be shown to the senior management team and school governors. A second filming session includes a mixed age group discussing the accelerated mathematics programme, for use by the head at a conference.

This term, a group of Year 7 pupils and the sixth form media team are filming a tour of Blackfen to put together an induction DVD for primary pupils due to arrive at the school in September. The plan is to send the DVD to feeder primaries as well as putting it on the school website. This was inspired by the contestants' pre-entry tour of the Big Brother house.

Roy says that sixth form media studies students have gained a great deal by working with younger pupils, and developed practical skills linked to their post-16 course. The clear protocols have meant that staff are not threatened or undermined. More importantly, the consultation about phone rules has shown staff that pupil views are close to their own on acceptable use. Innovations Blackfen has major plans for the Big Brother project and has put in a bid to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust curriculum innovations grant body to buy audio visual equipment.

Matthew says: "We aim to have a half-termly Big Brother theme where, for two lunchtimes in one week, pupils can drop in to the diary room and comment on the subject under discussion. Subjects for next year include vertical tutoring, where several age groups might be taught together, and parents' evenings. Pupil comments will be used by governors and staff to inform future policy and innovations in the curriculum. They will also be used as a monitoring and review mechanism."

And Roy says: "The Big Brother experience has been positive. Pupils feel valued because they have been able to comment on aspects of school life that affect them."

Dawn Cox is head of RE and critical thinking at Orwell High School. Roy Watson-Davis is history Advanced Skills Teacher at Blackfen School for Girls.

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