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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Candid camera in the classroom?
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Angela Mason
Mrs Mason used a hidden camera to film disruption
Do we ever get to see what really goes on in everyday classrooms?

By that I mean the unvarnished truth - not the tidied-up, open day, school prospectus version or the tabloid newspaper cliché of the blackboard jungle.

I ask because this week Angela Mason, a former teacher turned broadcaster, was found guilty by the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) of unprofessional conduct after secretly filming lessons she taught as a supply teacher.

Her filming showed extensive disruption and was broadcast on TV by Five in a documentary called Classroom Chaos.

The GTC hearing highlighted the culture clash between the worlds of education and journalism.

For the schools involved, and the GTC, the secret filming was a "breach of trust".

How can we give parents and voters a true picture of schools undiluted by positive spin?

It was also alleged that it left one pupil "embarrassed and humiliated" and had a negative impact on the schools and their staff.

For the programme-makers, it was the only means possible to highlight the persistent low-level disruption that they believe is damaging the learning of the majority.

The GTC accepted Mrs Mason was "well-intentioned" and that no long-term damage had been done to the pupils.

So the real issue for the council was the question of breach of trust, which it regarded as sufficiently serious to warrant a one-year teaching ban on Mrs Mason.

However, there is a wider issue too.

It is this: how can we give parents and voters a true picture of schools undiluted by positive spin or, conversely, fortified by negative distortion?

And here I wish to make a confession as someone who has spent nearly two decades reporting on schools for television.

In all of that time, I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when I showed any visual evidence of classroom disruption.

Letting in cameras

If your only experiences of schools were based on the visual evidence of television news reports you would come away with an overall impression of orderly, peaceful, learning-focused classrooms.

Yet I know this is not always the reality. I have walked past other classrooms, or stood outside schools, and heard the levels of disruption that sometimes go on.

I may have broadcast stories about bad behaviour, violence, exclusions, and truancy - based on official reports, statistics or union claims - but I have rarely ever shown these things in action.

Why? It is simple: only the confident schools and able teachers will let the cameras into their classrooms.

There are other reasons too.

If there is any disruption in a classroom I am filming, how can I be sure that it is not a response to my cameras?

Having a TV crew in the classroom is not an everyday occurrence.

'Good news'

Finally, in most television news reports the aim is to tell the story clearly and concisely, so any unusual or distracting behaviour in a classroom simply gets in the way of the journalistic narrative.

Indeed, because I explain to pupils that the best chance of being "on the telly" comes if they get on with their work, then I usually film impeccably behaved classrooms.

So much so, that teachers often ask if we can come back for the next lesson too.

I do worry, though, that far from giving a bad impression of schools - as teachers often accuse the media of doing - I am under-stating the difficulty of their job and the challenges they face.

That is not to say that the media focuses on "good news". That is clearly not the case.

However good the intentions, secret filming in schools can ever manage to be a truthful portrayal of reality

We do, justifiably in my opinion, focus on where there are problems and challenges, where policy or practices are not working, and where solutions are needed.

It is just that the case studies we show tend to be models of good practice.

So a story about the worsening exclusion figures, for example, will probably show a case study of a school that has found a solution to poor behaviour.

Now I mentioned that there have been a very few cases where I have shown poor behaviour on the screen.

Those with long memories might recall The Ridings School in Halifax - dubbed the UK's most troubled school.

Two brief shots from the coverage of that school's troubles come to mind.

One showed a pupil flicking a "V-sign" behind the back of the head teacher as she walked into the school.

The other showed scenes, originally filmed by Panorama, taken from a "cherry-picker" crane using a long lens to obtain semi-secret filming of classroom disruption.

Supply teachers

The arguments about the circumstances of those images continues today. But what is remarkable about them is how rarely you will see such material in television news programmes.

And this brings us back to Mrs Mason. The Channel Five programme-makers felt, on the evidence of Ofsted reports, statistics and anecdote, that classroom disruption was a problem.

But the only way they felt they could prove it was through under-cover filming. They believed this was the "least worst" option for bringing an important issue to light.

Of course, there are all sorts of problems once you go down the secret-filming route. We all approve of it when it is used to catch gangsters, thieves or corrupt officials. But children are another matter.

There were other considerations too. How effective a teacher was Mrs Mason? She had, after all, been out of the profession for many years.

Was the bad behaviour down to her command of classroom management techniques or was it the result of low expectations in the schools and the poor self-discipline of the pupils?

In the end, I fear, that is something that is almost impossible for outsiders to judge.

Little learning

And what is the alternative to secret filming? Fly-on-the-wall documentaries occasionally catch genuine moments of reality.

But the need to edit material down from hours to minutes inevitably risks taking events out of context.

Personally, I am not convinced that, however good the intentions, secret filming in schools can ever manage to be a truthful portrayal of reality.

In extreme cases, where all other access is denied, it may be justified by the public interest. But not often and, when it is, the caveats about the circumstances must be made clear.

One final thought, though, on the Mrs Mason case. The programme makers aimed to reveal problems of pupil behaviour.

They identified something else more clearly: problems with the use of supply teachers.

Whether or not she was hampered by her filming or by her lack of recent classroom experience, Mrs Mason's recordings showed extensive bad behaviour and very little learning.

Yet, according to her representatives at the GTC hearing, at no time were any complaints made about her competency.

Indeed it is said that the feedback on her teaching was entirely positive and she was encouraged to come back.

It was also alleged that she was put in charge of classes without being told what to teach and that she was not pre-warned about certain pupils known to have challenging behaviour.

So, whatever the doubts about the message on pupil behaviour, this whole affair raises legitimate questions about how schools are relying on supply staff as child-minders rather than effective teachers.

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