Lights, camera...

6th July 2001 at 01:00
A fly-on-the-wall documentary series in a Manchester comprehensive is set to offer an interesting insight into the problems which final year school students face. Jo Hirst and Biddy Passmore report

A Manchester head has done the unimaginable and invited a film crew into his school - for a whole year. The result - a 13-hour documentary series showing the lives of Year 11 pupils from their perspective - will be screened on Channel 5 from September. Called, aptly enough, School, it follows a group of final year students at Egerton Park Arts College, a 1,400-pupil 11 to 16 specialist comprehensive in Tameside, as they battle through their exams, job and college applications and general growing pains.

It was the programme's focus on young people that helped persuade headteacher John Hart to back the project - and he was careful to get the backing of staff and parents.

"Of course it wasn't an easy decision to make, and it wasn't taken lightly - but I liked the fact that it was child-centred," he says. "It would have been fairly boring viewing and somewhat egotistical to have been about teachers.

"I also thought it was a unique opportunity to find out what our pupils felt and to show state education in a positive light. We are proud of this school and confident in both our teachers and our pupils and I felt that we should be brave enough to show this. I was also impressed with the producer and felt that I could trust her to portray our pupils and staff fairly."

The producer in question is Sallyann Keizer, a veteran film maker for children's television, who has been camped out in Manchester since September and will carry on filming until the inevitable screaming when pupils get their GCSE results. She originally approached 500 schools about taking part in the programme and ended up with about 50 who were genuinely interested. Ms Keizer then journeyed around the country to find the school which the intended youth audience could relate to.

She told The TES: "We were looking for an average school: not one with any extremes academically, but with pupils who had a range of abilities and a range of talents. We didn't want an inner-city school, which often has its own rather defined identity, or one near London, as too many programmes are centred on the south-east. What we wanted was a school with pupils that most school children in the UK could identify with.

"What we were most concerned with was that we should be as unobtrusive as possible. The school is trying to give everyone an education and we have had to fit in around all concerned without disturbing that."

Ms Keizer and her team have concentrated on 15 students, both in and out of school, with another 15 taking a smaller supporting role. The results will shed light on issues such as bullying, exam stress and the social habits of today's teenagers.

Although the school accepted, there were pupils - and teachers - who didn't want to be filmed and their wishes were respected, but those who participated have responded amazingly well to the project.

Adele Stanhope, 16, says her reaction to the cameras was "total embarrassment at first" but "it just got better". She felt no distraction from her 10 GCSEs and had enjoyed talking to the television crew. "They gave me a camera so I could film myself at home working and in my social life," she told The TES. "I worked harder at my coursework because I knew my family were going to watch."

Natalie Clowes, 16, says: "The programme lets people know what we care about and what we want. It has definitely motivated me to do better in my work as you want to look as if you're doing well at school - that you're good and brainy."

The head believes the programme will show how hard teachers and pupils work, and further the discussion about workload and exam pressures. "If this programme goes some way to opening up the debate about the pressures of exams then it would have been worth doing it just for that," he says.

Yvonne Arden, assistant deputy head responsible for liaising with the Channel 5 team, said the presence of the cameras was "like having a new teacher in the school". In general, she says, the crew "just faded in."

As for the pupils, they were used to a lot of people coming and going, from Office for Standards in Education inspectors to support staff, and quickly adapted to the extra presence. The TV crew had been an asset in some ways, she added, providing "a lot of counselling and TLC" for teenagers with problems.

Is she glad to have been involved in the project or will she be glad to see the cameras go? "It depends what I see on TV," she says.

But Ms Keizer knows she will be sad when the filming is over. "Although it has definitely been my hardest project, it is certainly my most rewarding," she told The TES. "I am going to miss the children so much when I leave."

School will start on September 8 on Channel 5.

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