Auntie's long lesson

If we all drop a clanger now and then, few of us are unlucky enough to be reminded of it for years afterwards. Not so Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961. Asked in 1952 how he felt about the idea

of school television, he was precise, pungent and altogether wrong: "Nothing less than a perfect disaster".

Fisher's judgment was typical both of his time and his class. Establishment contempt for television was summed up in 1946 by William Haley, then director-general of the BBC, who declared he wouldn't have one in his house. For an establishment wedded to the wireless, television was the "idiot lantern", the "goggle box", a gadget more likely to stupefy than edify.

The 40th anniversary of the first national broadcasts by BBC Schools TV in September 1957 is a good time to remind ourselves that initial attitudes towards the new medium, let alone the educational service that was to grow out of it, were often less than enthusiastic. Hence the tentative start to a scheme that began in

1952 with experimental broadcasts to six secondary schools. Fisher's reservations notwithstanding, these were judged a success.

Five years later, the full BBC Schools TV service was launched, with celebrations only slightly muted by the fact that the commercial service had nipped in with an equivalent just four months earlier.

The four decades since have seen radio almost totally eclipsed by television as a medium of formal education. In 1957, 29,000 schools were registered regular users of school radio. Today, group listening to live radio is virtually unknown, and pupils make clear their dislike even for recorded programmes.

Frank Flynn, head of commissioning for BBC Schools TV, sees this as the result of "a process of natural selection". Children's desertion of speech radio over the years simply mirrors changing preferences in

the nation overall. Even so, he points out, schools radio coverage of the expressive arts, music and movement - as well as English - still gets a healthy response from primaries.

Since the Eighties, however, television has been by far the dominant medium for education. It is a position BBC Schools TV seeks to maintain through constant consultation with teachers as to the types of programme needed, as well as through regular viewer response surveys.

Frank Flynn feels these contacts ensure that BBC Schools TV never loses sight of what teachers actually need to help them in the classroom: "Teachers who use our series feel very involved and we have a pretty good dialogue with them."

Such a relationship aims to ensure that the service responds quickly to the frequent changes in the curriculum. The 1994 introduction of the science curriculum for primary schools, for example, was the signal for the BBC to spend #163;6 million over three years on key stage programmes like Science Zone and The Experimenter.

More recently, the growth of vocational courses like GNVQ has inspired such programmes as the excellent Job Bank.

These - and others like them - are acclaimed not just by teachers but also by the media. Nearly 70 per cent of primary schools regularly uses Words and Pictures, a language series that has run for 30 years and picked up several Royal Television Society awards along the way.

Equally distinguished is English File. But the trophy cupboard for the English and PSE series Scene is even more crammed. Hardly surprising when one considers that, over nearly three decades, the series has featured work by the likes of Willy Russell, Alan Plater, John Godber and Andrew Davies.

They, like many of the actors who have appeared in Scene dramas - among them Dennis Waterman, Warren Mitchell and Roger Daltry - often work for a reduced fee, no doubt reasoning that the cause outweighs the cash.

Not that the BBC can afford to be generous, given the current pressure to cut costs by what seems like almost any means.

For Frank Flynn, though, the future looks rosy. "The BBC still regards its commitment to education as the cornerstone of its provision," he says, then reels off some exciting projects: new interactive approaches to learning, late-night GCSE revision programmes, plus the installation of Web sites for most school subjects. Life is as unlikely to begin at 40 for BBC Schools as for the rest of us; but anything that comes near the achievements for the first four decades will suit most people.

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