You can do it if you really want
March 11 is the date Mangotsfield School, on the outskirts of Bristol, has chosen to produce its entry for the annual TES Newsday. That's the competition in which thousands of schools throughout the UK try to produce a newspaper in a single day. So in the Mangotsfield resource centre, now serving as a makeshift newsroom, everyone is working away feverishly - everyone, that is, except for the teacher in charge of the proceedings.
In fact, Mike Whitton gives every impression of being more an interested observer than someone who will have to carry the can if things go disastrously wrong. He seems content to let the pupils make their own decisions and their own mistakes. "When I started organising Newsdays nine years ago I was very hands-on," he says. "But over the years, I've discovered something which I suppose should be a bit worrying for a teacher: the less I do, the more learning takes place."
It might sound like a recipe for mayhem, but in fact the library is a hive of purposeful activity as a team of 14 Year 10 cub reporters and five Year 12 veterans race to have their newspaper, Focus, finished in time to catch the 5 o'clock post - the non-negotiable deadline stipulated in the Newsday rules.
"It couldn't be done if we didn't have everything really well organised," says Tim Joyce, taking time off from his AS-levels to run the show. Before a single word was written, he made sure that all his team had clearly defined job descriptions and knew exactly what was expected of them. The fact that they were willing to subject themselves voluntarily to a hard day's work is partly testament to his enviable blend of charm, humour and steely determination. But talk to the children and you discover that - despite the studied casualness - they really do get a buzz from feeling that they are sharing in a team effort. Sure, it's a bit of a laugh, and a welcome break from lessons, but they are also keen to prove to Mike Whitton - and to themselves - that they can rise to the challenge.
"Newsday gives children an experience which is far more like life in a busy adult workplace than life in the classroom," says Mike Whitton, "and they respond to that." The Year 10 pupils have to face a steep learning curve so having the older pupils around who can teach them a few tricks of the trade makes all the difference. There are other benefits. The younger pupils obviously want to demonstrate that they are every bit as mature and resourceful as the Year 12s - who in turn also benefit from the opportunity it offers them to develop their leadership skills.
Sophie Scaplehorn who's responsible for the artwork on Focus says: "It surprised me at first, but I like the responsibility of being in charge. I explain to the Year 10s what needs to be done. And they do it! It's amazing."
As in any newsroom, there's no way of knowing what stories will break.
Newsday might be fun, but the news hardly ever is.
March 11, of course, was the date of the Madrid bombings. Tim Joyce assigned Ria Jenkins to the story. She, like journalists around the world, scoured the net's various news sources for the emerging and sometimes contradictory facts, and tried to make sense of a senseless act and managed to hammer out the story - at the right length and on time.
Meanwhile, on other PCs in the library and the computer suite, her colleagues were writing about the British prisoners released from Guantanamo, the Leicester City footballers and a GP who for some odd reason had presented the good people of Skegness with an elephant.
These stories are based on information gleaned from online news services, but Charlotte Dring got down to some old-fashioned journalism. She went to Explore-at-Bristol to report on the OSGARS ceremony which celebrates the often unsung achievements of young people in foster care.
Quite rightly, the school itself featured strongly in the mix of stories that Tim Joyce chose to feature in Focus. On the sports page, a jubilant Greg Rusedski had to take second place to the invincible junior rugby XV who were off to Twickers to compete in some glorious final. And - hold the front page - the school has been awarded specialist school status in science and engineering. Steffie Denton interviewed the deputy head about the implications of this and rattled off an impressive 500 words which should be of real interest to pupils and parents. Other writers worked on feature articles ranging from the potential threat posed by GM crops to the new craze of Extreme Ironing. Pupils also wrote reviews, TV listings, the results of a survey, a horoscope and a crossword.
Once a young hack has typed her copy in Word, the article is saved to a a floppy disk, meticulously labelled and rushed to Luke Hall who composes the pages in a format agreed upon by the team. His main priority, he says, "is Focus should look like a real newspaper." So he sets the copy in columns and ensures the pages have an eye-catching balance of text, pictures and advertisements. Luke has to use the Serif Page Plus 6 DTP package. "I'd prefer if it was Office Publisher which is far more flexible," he says, but the school doesn't have a site licence so we have to make the most of this."
Indeed the continuing success of Newsday depends on so many schools being willing to make the most of what they've got. Some are far better resourced than Mangotsfield, but there are other schools where the pages are still composed using nothing more cutting-edge than ye olde pair of scissors and pot of paste. "It isn't the technology that matters," says Brian Robinson, a former ICT adviser for Redcar and Cleveland, who has been the driving force behind Newsday since its inception. "What the judges are looking for is enthusiasm and passion. You can somehow recognise immediately when pupils really care about the look and content of their newspaper." In which case, Focus certainly fits the bill.