Watching them, watching you

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Teaching Pride and Prejudice to urban teenagers is daunting, and doubly so in front of a TV crew, says Stephen Jones

It is the stuff of nightmares. That is to say, the sort of nightmares that teachers tend to have. Picture the scene. You are teaching Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to a class of teenagers in an inner-city college. You don't expect them to have read the whole book yet but, for the lesson to work, they need to have read at least some of it.

The class starts and you ask if they have done the reading. "Be honest," you say. They are, and you realise that the lesson you've carefully prepared will only work for half of them. You become acutely aware that sitting in the corner, taking notes, is your line manager. And watching him watching you, is a camera crew making a documentary about the experience for a TV company.

Ouch! But for English teacher Rupert Shortt, there was to be no waking up to discover that it was just a nasty dream. This was reality, and a reality he had volunteered for when Teachers' TV came looking for FE classes to film for their new series, Teaching for the Future.

The problem, and how it was resolved, became the central issue round which the film, ironically entitled Natural Born Readers, revolved. And while, for Rupert, it wasn't exactly a case of "with one bound he was free", he did find a resolution to the problem which satisfied both him and line manager Tony Fahy.

The programme is one of a series of eight short items with an FE setting being shown in June and July on the cable and satellite network which celebrated its first on-air anniversary in February. Shot at City and Islington College, north London, and Runshaw College, Lancashire, the films aim to "raise standards of teaching and learning in FE".

Each programme has a common format. A mentor, or "critical friend", as director Chris Guiver likes to term it, sits in on a class during filming.

When problems arise they are discussed on-screen by teacher and mentor and the solutions they come up with are put into practice in the next filmed session. As well as academic subjects such as English and history it covers classes in massage therapy, cookery, sports science and beauty.

In Rupert Shortt's case the "solution" involved sending the non-readers to the library to catch up, while he concentrated on the other half who were properly prepared. Later we see him sitting down with the "refuseniks" to find out why they haven't done the required reading. Not surprising, no-one puts it down to idleness. One is a second language speaker and is having problems with the idioms of late 18th-century England. Another is pushed for time as he attempts to juggle work (he is saving his earnings, he tells Rupert, to buy a grand piano) and college commitments. A third, a teenage mum, confesses she was forced to put the demands of a small baby before the prose of Jane Austen.

Many college teachers will identify with such problems, and Rupert wins praise from his "critical friend", Tony, for his humane tackling of them.

Rather optimistically, Tony observes: "I'm really hoping that by the next lesson they will have caught up."

While it may not have been by the next lesson, the students did in the end catch up, Rupert tells me, when I meet him some months after the film was shot. He's confident now that almost all of the students will pass their AS-level in English literature, many with the high grades that City and Islington expects from its sixth-form "college-within-a-college" clientele.

Despite having had to watch, on camera, as so many of his class tiptoed out the door, Rupert thinks that the whole experience has been worthwhile. As the series was made for Teachers' TV, he was spared fears of a possible stitch-up and the concomitant bad publicity. "They said they would cut the film to avoid student and staff embarrassment," he says.

But didn't the students play up to the camera, I ask, remembering some of the putative prima donnas I have come across in my own teaching career? On the contrary, Rupert says, "I think they worked better than normal. It's like you sometimes see when an inspector is in the room. They want to help you rather than play up."

The only aspect of the experience he is uncertain about is the size of his audience. "It's nice being on-screen, but I'm not sure how many people actually watch Teachers' TV."

I put the point to Chris Guiver, who has directed and filmed all eight programmes in the FE series. "These things take time to grow," he says, "but it will work out eventually through a drip, drip effect."

He refers to the station's website with its extensive range of downloadable programmes which can be accessed at any time. "Teachers' TV doesn't really work best for sitting in front of the television for an evening's viewing, he said."

Jenny Green, head of the teaching and learning unit at City and Islington, points out that such films are proving very useful for in-service training.

"I am always trying to find decent videos to use in training," she said. "It's great having some snazzy, up-to-date, 15-minute programmes to show."

According to the channel's press office, research confirms the link between the programmes and in-service training. But they too are selective in how they define its success, and talk of reaching "21 per cent of school staff who have cable or satellite TV". But at least Teachers' TV has put FE on its map, which is more than some parts of the educational establishment are minded to do.

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