One of the winners in Radio 4's controversial reshuffle of its schedule is education. In the run-up to the changes, listeners said that education was high on their list of priorities. One result of this is The Learning Curve, a 12-week series of half-hour prime-time magazine programmes.
James Boyle, controller of Radio 4, is proud of his new schedule. "We are going to have fun, but we will be unashamedly Reithian in our values," he says. The Learning Curve will take education "out of the shadows and put it in the spotlight". Previously, Radio 4's Education Matters was tucked away at 11pm Monday on long wave.
"The Learning Curve is the first time Radio 4 has put education at the top of the agenda," says Clare McGuinn, the series producer. She should know - her previous job was producing Education Matters. The new show will be presented by Libby Purves, the chatty host of Radio 4's Midweek programme.
Does the series reflect the importance the Government places on education? "Yes," Ms McGuinn says. "The main aim of The Learning Curve is to encourage people of all ages to become lifelong learners. Education is now a big issue - it's in everyone's mind. For this reason, Radio 4 is keen to highlight it."
But doesn't education as a subject have an image problem? "Perhaps," McGuinn concedes, "but there's nothing stuffy about our new programme. It's definitely aimed first and foremost at the learner. It's for anyone who's interested in learning and wants to find out what's in it for them."
Aimed at a wide audience of all age groups, The Learning Curve will feature "grand-parents, parents and children". But, given that Radio 4 listeners tend to be older than audiences for other stations, the series will include parents who have older children, as well as retired people "who see learning as a lifeline". A further two series are planned for September and January 1999; like the present one, they will be linked to school terms.
Involving the listener is not just an idle slogan. "We will be involving listeners as punters," McGuinn says. "To do this, we want them to use audio diaries to review courses, books, CD-Roms and learning aids. For example, we are asking students at the City Lit in London to review a very popular course called How To Change Your Life; we want them to tell us whether it actually does do that - and how."
The programme's "consumer element" is very important. "I know there's a lot of concern among parents about baseline assessment. More and more parents are buying test books rather than story books for their kids. Are businesses preying on parental paranoia, or are these books useful?" At the end of each programme, McGuinn says, "we want people to come away with something tangible and useful". There will be a helpline to call and a Web site to visit: "This will have links to other sites, a space to discuss issues and a virtual radio studio to explore. It will also have a quiz based on GCSE questions."
Each week will feature a radio diary from a member of the Dare family in Manchester. Led by grandparents Maureen and Desmond, the family has two branches. One is Julie, married and working, with children Emma, aged eight and Robert, six; the other is Maxine, a single parent, with son Ben, 13.
"What's fascinating is the different attitudes to, say, dyslexia, across the generations," McGuinn says, "or the fact that Desmond feels that because he was schooled by women during the war, he missed out on male role models."
Because each programme will be mainly live, no preview tapes are available. But judging from the ideas - phone-ins on controversial issues, a feature on the "male brain" and underachieving boys, and a series on The Most Important Lesson I Was Ever Taught starring authors Ken Follett and Jackie Collins, newsreader Trevor McDonald and politician David Mellor - The Learning Curve seems set to achieve its aim of "being neither bewildering nor boring, but relevant to ordinary people".
Radio 4's Web site is: http:www.bbc.co.ukeducation