A school in Solihull made sure it impressed inspectors by showing them a 30-minute video. Diana Hinds reports
It is not unusual for a visit from inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education to leave teachers feeling exhausted and worried that they and their pupils have not come across in the best light.
Certainly, this was the experience, three years ago, of Peter Wright, headteacher of Hazel Oak School in Shirley, Solihull, a special school for pupils of four to 16 with moderate learning difficulties.
"It was an extremely stressful experience and some of the judgments made I felt to be highly questionable," he says. "As a special school we were particularly disappointed that the OFSTED team had quite limited experience of special needs."
A second inspection at Hazel Oak has been more positive. "We were determined to stand up for the school and to be quite assertive this time," says Mr Wright.
A feature of the school's preparation for OFSTED second time round was a 30-minute video, produced with professional help, showing children learning in a variety of settings during a typical school day.
Mr Wright explains: "OFSTED come to take a 'snapshot' of school life and, just like a photograph, it's a moment in time, with no reference to what goes before or after.
"So I thought, let's have a moving snapshot, a video which celebrates, rather than defends, what we are doing in this school."
There had been videos of the school's residential trips available at the first inspection, but the new video was to be carefully structured and edited - an altogether more polished affair.
The inspectors gave the finished video their close attention, and had not, says Mr Wright, seen anything quite like it before.
Now, the video will be useful for showing to prospective parents, or at educational conferences and local authority meetings. It shows nine scenes of school life, each about three minutes long, ranging from assembly and a lusty hymn practice, to a science lesson on gravity, snippets of a discussion on enmity in Romeo and Juliet, and a lively PE session involving a large, flattened parachute.
Concentrated and imaginative learning is particularly evident in a clip of an infant story-time session and a junior art lesson exploring Monet's use of colour and brush technique.
The video was made on a camcorder so picture quality is not sensational, but skilful shooting and editing have produced a smooth-flowing film with moments of real insight.
"Teachers may well perform below par in the week of an inspection," says Mr Wright. "They are much less inhibited by a camera than by an OFSTED inspector."
The man behind the video camera was Peter Boswell, retired head of finance and administration at Solihull education authority. He is now pursuing his long-standing interest in professional photography and designs and presents key stage 2 science courses in Solihull schools. He was helped by Janet Webber, a support assistant at Hazel Oak.
Mr Boswell's educational experience and camera know-how, combined with his familiarity with Hazel Oak School, made him the ideal person for the job. He spent several weeks dropping in on interesting lessons to shoot the video. He is already planning a similar project at a Roman Catholic primary school in Solihull, and would be happy to undertake others.
Any school-made video is bound to emphasise the school's good points and downplay the bad. Mr Boswell's trickiest editing task at Hazel Oak was to cut out shots of a student teacher taking part in a PE lesson in hefty, high-heeled boots that had gone unnoticed during filming.
But, as Mr Wright points out, there is little point in a school trying to make itself look perfect in a video if it can't match this quality when the inspectors are around.
A future video might show evidence of children's progress, by focusing on the same group over a period of time.
Lynn Lewis, who led the recent OFSTED inspection at Hazel Oak, confirms that inspectors found the video helpful - and of a higher standard than those he has seen before in special schools.
"Given the limitations of a video - that it will only show what a school is proud of - it does give us a more rounded picture," he says. "It is good to have that supportive evidence to help us formalise our judgments, so that if you're seeing good things in the classroom, this can be confirmed by video evidence."
Special schools tend to make more use of video, in inspections and in other work, than mainstream schools. But Hugh Wilcock, a senior inspector in Solihull, believes that using video evidence could be a good for mainstream schools too.
"A video would not be the basis on which I made a judgment, but it could be useful corroborative evidence,'' he says.