A pair of rural primaries are swapping art classes for literacy hours via video. Michael Shaw reports
Art is not headteacher Paul Cockroft's strongest point. Luckily, his fellow head Peter Ralley can take over his class each week without leaving his own school, more than 50 miles away.
The two heads, who both manage small rural primary schools, have set up a buddy system that allows them to help out in each others' lessons every Friday by video conference.
Mr Ralley, head of Thomas Barnes primary in Tamworth, Staffordshire, takes over when the pair teach art while Mr Cockroft, head of St Mary's primary in Mucklestone, Shropshire, uses his skills as a literacy teacher. Pupils can see each other on their classrooms' interactive whiteboards.
Mr Cockroft said: "I knew nothing about Mondrian, but I do now after Pete's lesson last week."
Thomas Barnes has only 77 pupils, while St Mary's has 47 and just three part-time teachers, so both lack the wider staff expertise found in bigger primaries.
The two heads have been experimenting with video conferencing to teach joint lessons for nearly four years, but they have begun to use the technology regularly since they acquired broadband and more advanced equipment.
They now work with heads at 12 other schools in Staffordshire demonstrating their approach.
Mr Ralley said the best video conference lessons avoid long periods of practical work, which are difficult for pupils to follow on screen.
"We had one lesson in which pupils tried to help each other make Lego models they had built by giving each other instructions, but that was a disaster," Mr Cockroft said.
Instead, they discovered it was best to talk straight to camera for a few minutes, then leave the pupils to work in groups before reconvening the class to compare their work.
"Often the pupils will hold their work up to the camera, then the children at the other school applaud," Mr Ralley said.
The pair have now extended their links by taking their pupils on a joint residential activity in Shugborough. Mr Cockroft said: "They knew each other from the video conferences, so you would hear them saying, 'I recognise you!'"
The two heads use simpler video conferencing equipment in their offices to discuss some of the management challenges they face, such as impending Ofsted inspections.
They advise other teachers who want to use their technique to get classes in the same school communicating first so that pupils get used to the technology and the occasional time-lag between questions and answers.