12 MAY 2009
On 26 March 2009, over 500 schools, throughout the UK, were fervently producing content for their school websites and the BBC, on a day which heaved with live broadcasts across every fibre of the organisation's news output. Students own news created for a real audience.
But six weeks later, can it be said that School Report has actually helped stimulate improvement in the classroom? I revisited Wolstanton High School in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire to find out.
According to the school's Head of Media, Claire Rushton, the students continue to see the positive benefits of the project. She said: "They have learnt research skills, media techniques and how to operate different types of equipment - and their confidence has grown massively."
And it wasn't only students that benefitted from the project. "I didn't know one end of a camera from the other," said Claire "It has helped me improve as a media teacher."
Jasmine, 12, one of twenty budding journalists at the school, clearly remembers the tension of the final moments in the run-up to the two o'clock deadline, aguishly putting last-minute touches to her report. "It was really stressful but great fun," she said.
Fellow student, Hannah, 13, has equally powerful memories. "I remember, we kept looking at the clock, counting down the hours, but we got there in the end," she chuckles, seemingly unscarred by her first journalistic experience.
Focussing on entertainment news, Jasmine and Hannah, reported numerous exciting showbiz stories. Most impressively, they managed to secure an exclusive interview with Emmerdale starlet Roxanne Pallett who talked about her career as an actress.
"She was really nice," beams Hannah, adding: "It was hard to find time for an interview with her acting and our school work, but we managed to get a telephone interview."
'You'll do it'
It was easy to observe, through students' smiling complexions and warm reminiscences, how much they enjoyed their School Report experience. Often punctuating answers with involuntary bursts of laughter, their hard work is a testament to the countless hours both students and teachers across the UK spent on this project, frequently outside regular school hours.
As next year's School Report preparations begin in earnest, any students considering a new journalistic adventure can take solace from the considered words of Jasmine, a survivor of this year's project: "Don't panic! Keep calm - you'll do it."
23 MARCH 2009
Newcastle-under-Lyme, a town steeped in the industrial history of Britain. Bordering the famous pottery factories of Wedgewood and Royal Doulton its once rich coal seams powered the nation. It was also the birthplace of Reginald Mitchell CBE, a renowned aeronautical engineer better known for his design of the iconic Supermarine Spitfire and happens to be my home town.
When I volunteered for the School Report project I was secretly hoping that I would have the opportunity to mentor in North Staffordshire. It is an area that has always been close to my heart and within my thoughts. It was there as a young adolescent that I began fostering dreams of working in the media industry. Even at a young age, I was totally captivated with every aspect of television. From the scripting to the camera angles I scrutinised every inch - I was evidently a strange child!
Nevertheless, there was no outlet for this fascination.
Apart from the excellent BBC Radio Stoke, there are little opportunities for budding broadcasters. Although, a new media complex, at the cost of £42m, is currently under discussion by Stoke-on-Trent city councillors, the nearest established television studios currently reside in Birmingham.
It is in these areas otherwise deprived of traditional media opportunities where School Report is essential. A chance to sample how broadcast news is assembled can be an invaluable experience as well as a powerful educating force.
My latest mentoring destination was Wolstanton High School. Opened in 1928, this former stately home was most recently brought to national attention as the former school of infamous Big Brother twins Sam and Amanda.
As I approached its grand frontier, I was surprisingly calm about the prospect of mentoring. After my previous experience at Whitton School in Twickenham, Middlesex, I felt confident that I would be able to get across some hopefully useful information.
However, there was one task that was filling me with dread - I was going to be interviewed on camera. It is hard to explain the trepidation that consumed me. I have always considered myself to be a quite articulate man until the camera rolls and the red recording light shines brightly. This seemingly trivial change instigates a metamorphism that would send a shudder down the spine of the most ardent horror fan.
Firstly, I start to ramble; my brain firing off on tangents that have only little relevance to their original question and probably only serves to confuse my School Reporters. I can still picture my hands flail around as if independently controlled by a befuddled third party. My only possible saving grace, lots of cutaways and hopefully a compassionate editor.
My credibility as an orator irreparably destroyed, I commenced the business of mentoring. In accordance with my previous school visits, Wolstanton High School has excellent facilities that befit its standing as a specialised humanities institution.
Upon entering the classroom I noticed a dramatic change since my own schooling. Apparently, hand writing is old fashioned. Colourful pencil cases have been replaced with high specification laptop computers allowing students to answer e-mails whilst simultaneously writing English coursework. How times have changed.
Undeterred by my technological inadequacies and armed with a traditional whiteboard marker, we discussed basic journalism principles and story structure. Only when I paused for breath did I realise that I had completed the transformation from broadcaster to mentor. On my whiteboard was a series of drawings and diagrams that showed both the vast amount of issues that were mentioned and my admiration for my former teachers. Afterall, isn't intimation the ultimate form of flattery?
Mostly, I continue to be astonished with the commitment I have seen in this project. At Wolstanton High School, School Report is an extra curriculum project that involves both teachers and students staying beyond regular school hours. Their unremitting efforts have already seen their would-be reporters secure interviews with celebrities such as Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallett.
Moreover, Wolstanton High School has recently developed a GCSE Media Studies programme and I hope that the skills and enjoyment these students have gained during this project will provide a good insight for their coursework.
As our School Report day draws nearer I am convinced that all of the students throughout the various schools I have visited this year will be credit to both their schools and themselves.
My School Report day will be spent with the students of Macmillan Academy, Middlesbrough where we will be broadcasting live throughout the day on various BBC programmes and online. However, after Stoke City's excellent victory against Middlesbrough last weekend maybe I will go in disguise!
8 DECEMBER 2008
A piercing siren punctuated my previously restful sleep. It was a wearisome 5am. Normally I would chastise my alarm clock as I plead for just five more minutes of tranquillity. However, this was no ordinary working day.
I looked out of my bedroom window upon a cold, wintery December morning and smiled broadly.
A student writes the first draft of his news story
Instead of my usual desk, I would be spending my day with the Year Seven pupils of Whitton School in Twickenham, Middlesex, on their first practice News Day.
When I boarded my train, I became suddenly anxious. Despite working in broadcasting for several years I have only been at the BBC for seven months.
My mind spun with a seemingly endless carousel of questions. What would I say? Would they listen? And most importantly, what on earth possessed me to even consider mentoring schoolchildren?
Thankfully my nervous tension was only a temporary condition. As I entered the school, any nostalgic memories of raucous classrooms, filthy blackboards and downtrodden desks were immediately dismissed.
My adopted school was a truly astounding facility of seemingly bountiful resources (in my era I would have settled for reliable plumbing!).
This awesome sight was matched by the equally impressive students eagerly waiting to discovery the trials and tribulations of contemporary journalism.
After a brief introduction, I attempted to impart my experiences, both agreeable and indifferent, from my years in the media industry. After all, every broadcaster has a few stories to tell. However, my ramblings were only the preamble to an enormously busy day.
A pupil edits his news report
Once unleashed, the recruits immediately jumped into the project with a characteristic vigour. Newspaper articles and countless internet pages were analysed for their editorial strength.
Within ten minutes, ideas were flowing from every conceivable avenue; each strenuously advocated by their originator. There were disagreements, like every newsroom in the country, but equally a commitment to consensus was palpable.
Despite only having a short time to research, their proposals were both engaging and stimulating. For example, one story used a forthcoming soap opera storyline about teenage pregnancy as a platform to discuss the purported impact of television upon younger audiences.
Such a story would be challenging for the most experienced journalists and the School Reporters approached the issue with real insight.
Editing the soundtrack takes a great deal of patience
In preparation for the School Report Deadline Day in March, students had the opportunity to experiment with video and radio production in addition to written assignments.
Hastily arranged interviews were conducted and voiceovers produced; an experience punctuated with bursts of embarrassed laughter that accompany each individual's appearance on screen.
With over a hundred students taking part, it is an indictment of Whitton's commitment and ambitions that these prized resources have been allocated to the project.
As our 2pm deadline rapidly approached, our would-be journalists were deep in concentration, with only the odd stolen glimpse at the clock their only respite.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that come the designated hour, all students had submitted articles about their chosen subjects.
A School Reporter puts the finishing touches to a news article
The students should be rightfully proud of their achievements. It can be difficult to write articles under the severe pressure of a looming deadline and they can take a huge amount of confidence away from today's practice. Their articles related both an intelligent and composed outlook that belied their youthful complexions.
I have no doubt that they will produce wonderful school reports that will be credit to both themselves and their school. Their limitless enthusiasm was both infectious and invigorating. It was reminiscent of how I felt during my first newsroom experience and has reminded me how truly lucky I am to work within the profession I adore.
Only next time - please don't call me Sir!