The latest BBC series aims to give teachers what they want. Carolyn O'Grady reports.
Documentary Scrapbook is the latest in the BBC's Access to Learning strand for children with special needs. Broadcast last month, it is aimed at children with moderate to severe learning difficulties and adopts a new format based on research into what special needs teachers want for their pupils. To be used in small chunks, it is a kind of encyclopedia from which teachers can draw material as they will.
The Access to Learning strand encompasses a wide range of programmes, including adaptations of programmes which have already gone out for mainstream schools but which have been made suitable for special needs pupils by adding, for example, signing for the hearing impaired or Audetel (audio descriptions of what's going on) for visually impaired pupils.
There are also specially made programmes such as Go for It, a series on life skills which will go out next spring, and others for deaf children and young people, called Moving to English, which help the hearing impaired move from British Sign Language to written English.
All are based on intensive research done in l993 by Sylvia Hines, then director of the Mental Health Media Council, in special needs schools. "It was found that teachers were having to trawl through much too much general material to get what they wanted for special needs children," said Julie Cogill, chief education officer for the BBC.
During the research project sequences were shown in special schools to assess what worked and what didn't. "General programmes were too fast and difficult for children with moderate or severe learning difficulties to follow," Julie Cogill said.
Cameras moved around too fast and children couldn't decipher what they were watching. It was found to be important that objects were shown first in full shot and that close-ups followed logically if children with severe to moderate learning difficulties were to make the right connections. Teachers said they found slow motion particularly helpful.
Special needs teachers also wanted material that had little sound so that they could introduce their own voice, sounds, symbols or signs to accompany the programmes. They wanted programmes to be short: five to 15 minutes was seen as the optimum length for a programme. Care was also needed to keep speech simple and to avoid double meanings.
Julie Cogill described how in one class children had been shown a lamb being born. The presenter had talked about the "ewe", but several members of the class thought he was talking about "you", ie them, which was extremely confusing.
Documentary Scrapbook incorporates many of these ideas. Two hours long, it contains five to 10-minute sequences. But even though parts are short, it is intended that teachers should interact with the programme, and should freeze-frame them and rewind for discussion and closer scrutiny. Sequences can be located using a menu at the beginning of the programme which relates to numbers that appear in the corner of the screen.
Filming is slow and shot according to the criteria set out following the research, and sound is kept to a minimum: sometimes there is music or animal noises, sometimes someone talks and occasionally a song accompanies a sequence. Animals - a popular subject - feature a lot with a series of sequences looking at those in the wild and then in the zoo or on a farm.
Many episodes are on geographical phenomenon like volcanoes, deserts and rivers. These are also popular subjects which relate to national curriculum objectives. Research had also revealed that children with moderate to severe learning difficulties, like most young people, enjoyed soap operas, said Julie Cogill.
Workshops on this subject would be part of a conference organised by the BBC and the Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative in Education, on using television with children with severe learning difficulties, which would take place in Leeds on November 20.
Documentary Scrapbook was broadcast during the night on October 15 and 22 and should be available from teachers centres. It will be repeated during the night of February 13 and 20 and regularly after that. For further information on programmes and the Leeds conference, contact BBC Education, White City, 201 Wood Lane, London W12 7TS. Tel: 0181 752 5252.