Unique archive footage of lessons being taught in Birmingham schools in the 1970s has been rediscovered during research for an exhibition opening at Ikon Gallery next week.

It was recorded by Darcy Lange, a pioneering video artist from New Zealand, as part of a project studying the process of teaching and learning in three schools with distinct social characters. The featured schools were King Edward’s School, Ladywood Comprehensive and Leabank (now Woodview) Primary.

Lange (1946-2005), came to Britain in 1968 to study at the Royal College of Art. Originally an abstract sculptor, he was one of a number of artists around this time who underwent a conversion to social themes, becoming interested in documenting ordinary people at work.

He had his first one-man exhibition at Ikon in 1971, including an animated slide-projection of three Irish labourers digging in London’s Oxford Street.

“He kind of reacted against the Royal College, I think,” says Ikon’s Helen Legg. “He was very interested in people, and he was very struck by the class system when he moved to England.”

At the three Birmingham schools Lange taped various lessons and then played the footage back to the teachers and pupils, recording their reactions.

Two teachers featured in particular are Mr Trott, teaching a lesson on The Duchess of Malfi to a sixth form group at King Edward’s, and Roger Perks, then head of Ladywood Comprehensive, who is seen teaching a class on George Orwell’s Animal Farm .

Reflecting on the videos, Lange later described Perks as “one of the most dedicated humanist teachers I’ve met”, adding: “Had there been more people like Roger Perks, fewer racial confrontations would have occurred in the area later.”

Afterwards Lange travelled and worked extensively across Europe and North America and returned to live in New Zealand, where he documented Maori life. Interest in his early work in Birmingham originated with the Govett Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, in collaboration with which the Ikon has exhibition has been organised.

“It’s been a really big research project,” says Helen Legg. “It led me to an old tin cupboard at Margaret Street that’s full of old Sony reel-to-reel video tape which was about to be thrown out. I said to the archivist I thought they might be Darcy Lange’s tapes. Sure enough, they have most of Darcy’s original video tapes, and what they have as well are all the tapes made by the School of Art Education.

“So we have this phenomenal archive of Birmingham schools – which no-one can see because it is on the earliest form of video tape, which won’t last much longer. I spent £600 getting just three of those tapes transferred to DVD. There’s a lot of footage which either people have never seen or that hasn’t been seen for over 30 years.”

* Darcy Lange: Work Studies in Schools is at Ikon Gallery from November 26 to January 25 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm; admission free). Former staff and pupils who may have featured in the filming at King Edward’s School, Ladywood Comprehensive and Leabank Primary are particularly welcome to attend the opening on November 25 (6pm-8pm).