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A beacon in danger of being snuffed out

I can still do a passable impression of Spotty Dog. I can remember all the words of the song which ends "Andy is waving goodbye". I may not be able to remember where I was when I last watched an episode of Bill and Ben but they made a greater impression on my childhood than Kennedy and nearly as much as Bill Shankly.

In the past half-century television has become one of the most powerful influences on childhood. Now that there is political consensus on the need to raise standards to levels unimagined a generation ago, shouldn't we ask whether television is an enemy or an ally in the drive to improve learning. And if it is more the former than the latter. how can we change things for the better?

It is touching to recall that in the brave, new world of the 1950s, the BBC went off the air altogether for an hour each evening to give parents time to put their children to bed. How different it is now. There are four, soon to be five, terrestrial channels broadcasting day and night into virtually every home. In two-thirds of homes children have their own televisions in their bedrooms. In addition, approaching 50 per cent of homes have cable or satellite, giving them access to countless further channels.

The BBC in 1996, 50 years after the first children's broadcast, still provides an unparalleled range of good quality children's television and dominates the children's ratings. It has 42 per cent ofthe children's audience. It produces magnificent children's drama, to fire the imagination. I was riveted by the episode I saw one Sunday morning of Agent Z and the Penguin from Mars. More to the point, my daughter was too. The Queen's Nose, a brilliant Dick King-Smith novel, made a wonderful TV drama.

Its factual programmes led, as ever, by Blue Peter continue to attract huge audiences. If we are to have public-sector broadcasting, then it is clearly right that we expect it to play a part in educating children. It is encouraging that, even though Rag, Tag and Bobtail are now collecting their pensions, the BBC is still managing to do that.

The trouble is that this is much less than half the story. There still seems to be a lot of guff on children's television but perhaps that is just my prejudice. It is in any case not the main issue. Much the most serious problem is that the bulk of the television children watch is not children's television. The most popular six regular programmes among children aged four to fifteen between 1 January and 26 May this year were Gladiators, Neighbours, Casualty, The National Lottery Live, EastEnders and Coronation Street.

We also know that increasingly children stay up well beyond the nine o'clock watershed and that many of them watch an uncontrolled diet of late night television on the sets in their bedrooms. We don't know enough about the consequences of this for children's education but we can certainly begin to guess.

Too many children, especially of primary age, don't get enough sleep. A few years ago I was involved in consulting a group of primary children about their ambitions for the future. One replied simply that she wanted to stay awake in the afternoons. Another consequence is the exposure of young children to the problems of the adult world or more precisely to television's version of them. This raises complex questions: the loss of innocence, the distorted perception of adulthood that television portrays and the whole issue of incitement to violence.

I, for one, will never accept that excessive exposure to violence on television makes no difference to children' s behaviour. I can understand that some researchers find no evidence of it but that is a different issue. If powerful visual images do not affect behaviour, why do advertisers spend such huge budgets trying to do precisely that?

Our research at Keele suggested that a substantial proportion of young people spend more time watching television each week than they do in school. It is a huge influence on their lives and, as the digital revolution frees up the market, that influence is likely to grow. It is tempting simply to complain that children "these days" watch too much television. What we really mean by that is it would be all right if only they were like we were when we were young. This is nonsense, of course, and in any case most adults are as addicted to television as children.

Children are not going to stop watching television. The issue is what we do to turn their viewing to advantage. The BBC must continue to put out the quality children's programmes. It should, as Libby Purves said at a recent seminar, not just be a mirror reflecting society but a beacon.

But as choice expands who will influence what children choose to watch? Surely public service broadcasters have a role in educating parents about how to further children's education. That should include information on the educational implications of watching television. After all we use television to promote health education, why not educational health too?

Schools have a role too. Just as the doctor diagnoses a child's medical condition but expects the parents to apply the remedy, so we might begin to see the teacher diagnosing a child's learning needs and advising parents on how they can help to meet them at home. This could include advice on what to watch and even, if necessary, on how much sleep a child needs. This in turn means providing teachers with the same kind of sound research findings that enable doctors to give such clear advice.

There is no alternative to parental responsibility but we need to ensure parents have the information they need to exercise it well. Otherwise the learning society we are seeking to create will never come. And it won't only be Andy Pandy who is waving good-bye.

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