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Turning the camera on the BBC School Reporters

Jon Jacob

Editor, About the BBC Blog

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BBC School Report, BBC News’s learning project has been inspiring 11-16 year old students up and down the country to make their own news on one special ‘News Day’ for ten years. Started in 2006 as a pilot with 120 secondary schools, the scheme is run by journalists and mentors who share a similar passion based on personal experience: finding out about things and telling others about them. Since 2005 more than 200,000 students and 2,000 schools have taken part.

I spoke to teachers and students from six schools across England, Scotland and Wales about School Report. It is with their help that I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the project. I wanted to use this post to explain the process and (reflecting the videos you see in this post) document what I learnt from the process.

How we produced the films

There are three films. One with students, one with teachers and one with School Report founding editor and Project Leader Helen Shreeve. Other than carrying out some initial research, I made a point of not speaking to the BBC School Report team first before I set out on my investigation. I wanted to get a fresh perspective. I wanted teachers and pupils to have their moment to talk about their experience, unbriefed and unprompted (over and above telling them the points we’d be touching on).

It was also really important that we didn’t interrupt students’ and teachers’ school day too much (most visits were between an hour and an hour and a half).

What we asked teachers and students

We interviewed the students first (teachers were present throughout), and then the teachers. Most important of all, I asked the same questions of each person:

  • What did you do on School Report?
  • What was the story you worked on? Why did it interest you?
  • What did you learn from doing School Report?
  • What was the best thing about doing it?
  • What would you say to others to persuade them to do School Report?

And for the teachers:

  • How does School Report help you in your teaching practise?

We followed these questions fairly tightly at each school (so that the edit process could be efficient and fair – see later on that one). But it was clear that we couldn’t be too robotic about it. A more human conversation took over in a bid to help teachers and students alike forget the sight of the camera.

What I learnt from the teachers

What I learnt first was the way in which the study of media had aligned itself with core subjects like English and Maths. My recollection of media studies degrees ten years ago, for example, was that they were regarded as a ‘soft option’ by some, or a subject selected by people who wanted to go to University but didn’t really know what to do when they got there.

School Report: Teachers' reactions

That reputation has changed dramatically. In all the schools I visited, I learnt how the study of the media is regarded as a crucial part of an all-round education, supporting the development of literacy skills and promoting a sense of citizenship and inclusion. In some locations, the message was stronger: studying media, the way it works and the way it intersects with our lives today helps young people establish and manage their lives in the digital space, something that never crossed my mind I’d need to do when I was at school thirty years ago.

What the students said

School Report: Pupils' reactions

I was surprised that I’d gone into the project with assumptions about teenagers. I’ve never felt at ease interviewing people in a school environment. Far too many memories of my own school days come flooding back. Would the students be nonplussed? Would they poke fun? Would they understand the questions?

Every student demonstrated an eagerness to find out what I was doing, what I did at the BBC and wanted to help. And when they sat down to answer my questions what they said did often blow me away. One 13 year old boy in Lampeter talked about the story he worked on about LGBT rights in India. He talked about the experience in a completely matter of fact way. Thirty years ago at school, I couldn’t even imagine anyone in my school even talking about such a subject let alone producing some writing about it and then proudly telling others.

Another student in Birmingham spoke of how she thought BBC School Report gave ‘the voiceless a voice’. And in North Shields, one teenager explained he really wanted to be a lawyer. “What inspired you to want to work in law?” I asked him. “You’re probably going to laugh at me,” he said apologetically, “but I really enjoy Suits – that’s what got me interested in law.” And there, another assumption challenged, the one we usually projected in a negative way: TV does influence the younger generation and for good too.

I don’t feel I can take the credit for the insights we managed to capture from the students.  Interviews had to be optimised to give each contributor the space they felt they needed to say what they wanted. At the same time it was important to realise that unlike the usual fast-paced environment where most visitors who appear on camera are there because they’re practised in the art of doing ‘a talking head’, not everybody is necessarily at ease talking to camera.

How could I help contributors feel more at ease? I asked parents and former teachers (from my schooldays) who are friends on Facebook. “Get them to talk about something they are really excited about,” said my former history teacher, “get them to tell you as though they were telling their best friend.” And a particular nod should go to former BBC R&D staffer and parent Ant Miller whose list of ‘questions to ask children at the end of their school day’ was invaluable. “Tell me about the best thing that has happened today” is a particular favourite.

What really impressed me was the confidence which our younger contributors spoke with.  They were at ease reflecting on how School Report helped them develop personally, a real surprise for me was how School Report News Days brought students of different age-groups across a school together in a way they wouldn’t normally collaborate. One person mentioned how immersing himself in the experience transformed his appetite and interest in news. George (see above) demonstrated how School Report could change someone’s assumptions about journalists themselves.

The students views were echoed by their teachers, who in all cases underlined how School Report went beyond journalism, that it helped promote a sense of independence amongst participants and complemented studies by providing a different ‘way in’ for topics which perhaps would be more challenging to introduce into a more orthodox everyday learning environment. The overwhelming message I took away with me was how School Report in a school environment was something which on the day almost powered itself.

Showing the finished product to Helen

Editing multiple contributions together can be quite demanding. People you don’t know who you see in clip after clip after clip, suddenly get burnt into your psyche simply as a result of visual familiarity. A tension emerges between needing to keep clips ‘punchy’ and wanting to respect each contributor’s need for space. Each subsequent edit feels like you’re cutting off a contributor’s limb in a sustained frenzied attack.

But there is a flip side to the editing process. Playing over a film to check transitions, colours and levels transforms a variety of different spoken contributions into something approaching music. I suspect that was one of the reasons why I was keen to share the rough-cuts with School Report editor Helen Shreeve before we sat down to talk. 

Editor Helen Shreeve talks about the aims and outcomes of BBC School Report

There was another reason. There was almost a hint of “Look what all these people are saying about the thing you and your team have worked hard to produce.” Here was an opportunity to throw light on one of the BBC’s highly valued endeavours and in the process of doing so reveal the human side of it. That’s something we sometimes overlook when we think of an organisation in terms of its scale or its impact.

Helen’s words reflected what I had learnt from some of the students: that journalism has at its core some really important transferrable skills. I’ve learnt that a little late in life (at least, later than I would have liked), but it is terribly reassuring to hear.

Jon Jacob is Editor, About the BBC Blog



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