Gerald Haigh discovers some of the many uses for a school video camera. I saw my first school video recorder in 1974. It was a reel-to-reel machine that recorded in black and white or rather it did when it was working, which was not very often. Such was the march of technology, that in no time at all the school was persuading the PTA to buy a video camera. This cost, if my memory serves me right, three jumble sales, two raffles and a summer fair, and was portable only in the sense that two PE teachers could carry it with only a bit of grunting.
Now, just about every school has a video camera and all over the country home-made recordings of Christmas concerts will be added to cupboards already full of cassettes labelled Wizard of Oz, 1993 and Year 8 in La Rochelle.
One school which claims to have gone further than most is Mayfield High, in Redbridge, where 10 years on from the first experiments, video activity has reached the point where as well as turning out award-winning creative work, it is providing a real service to outside organisations and the local community.
On the day I visited "The Video Network", which is what the erstwhile Mayfield school video club has developed into, three Year 7 girls were editing (while eating a sandwich lunch) some footage which they had shot over the Easter holidays at a Mencap play-scheme. They had given up a week of their holiday to do the shooting, and were now working every lunch hour to produce the finished 15-minute video.
This project is typical of a strong emphasis on community involvement which comes from John Westwood, resources co-ordinator at Mayfield. He has been at the school for 18 years and was originally involved in the placement of pupils in community service.
Using video to record the various projects in which his pupils were involved seemed a natural thing to do. "We started to play with the equipment. It was all very low key at first, we were just finding out how it worked." The turning point, he believes, was when some of his pupils' work had a showing at the Co-op Film Festival in 1986. "It then really took off in the following couple of years, when I had a group of mad keen students six girls and two boys. "
This group's work won several awards and, as a result, the Video Club, as it was then, had a much higher profile in the school and the local area. "The kids were getting much more status and lots of support." Now, video is very much part of the school. At any one time up to 30 students are actively involved in camera work and editing, and many more are engaged in more marginal ways.
The pupils have chalked up a list of impressive achievements, and there are now former students who have gone further in film and television and who come back to help. The group's room is papered with certificates, and the list of current locally-based projects include a video showing the work of the Residents Club at Chadwell Heath Hospital, and a multi-lingual home-help video for Croydon Borough.
Looking further afield, the school has co-operated with a Redbridge teacher working in a hospice in Romania. This has produced 48 hours of tape, from which pupils will make a range of videos on Aids awareness as well as some video diaries showing the work in the hospice.
The real benefits of all this for the pupils, emphasises John Westwood, go far beyond the mechanics of filming and editing. The work with outside bodies assessing needs and making plans challenges in a way that ordinary school work rarely does. It provides experience of teamwork under pressure, of working to deadlines and above all of making a quality product that will be seen by a real audience.
"They go out into the real world to be judged by people who don't know them," he says. "The range and depth of what they are doing goes far beyond GCSE Media studies, for example." Certainly what I saw of the the group's finished products showed them to be capable of real quality.
The inevitable question these days, I suggested to John Westwood, is to do with how any piece of school work fits the national curriculum. "I have a bee in my bonnet about that. What we have here is a system that can be used anywhere in the national curriculum." He went on to describe how pupils had used video in virtually every national curriculum subject working on a history project with six year olds in a local primary school; recording oral work in modern languages; showing techniques in CDT. And, as if to prove the point, while we were talking, a girl turned up to borrow a camera which she intended to use in a drama lesson that afternoon. "The watchword is accessibility. "