THE ART OF WRITING. BBC World Service. Fridays 9.30-9.45am. Until March 27.
SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEFor many years, the BBC's weekly radio assembly was a kind of head-teacher's company car - a perk that eased your life a bit and made you feel good. One head with whom I once worked used to sit in the hall on those mornings next to a huge wooden radio. The broadcast assembly would always have begun by the time the children started coming in, and they would be met by a cacophony made up of pleasantries and music from the loudspeaker ("Good morning, children!" rumty, tumty, diddle de dee) and loud Welsh yells from the head - "Quickly! Sit down and LISTEN!" Now, though, we have the cassette recorder, and assembly is broadcast at quarter past three in the morning. The tradition, though, is unbroken. The assemblies, always good, are even better - engaging, lively, thoughtful and varied, and very clearly designed to tackle the difficulty that today's children have in listening to picture-free discourse.
There are two main assembly strands: Something to Think About for five to sevens, and Together for seven to 11-year-olds. For the spring term each has two units of five assemblies. The younger children have "Names" and "Colours", and the juniors have "Moving Mountains" and "Messages". The structure is similar for both age groups. There are songs, stories, some comments on the theme by pupils, and some prompts for quiet reflection or prayer. Within a 15 or 20-minute slot, therefore, there is plenty of variety, and the minimum of opportunity for children to become restless or to lose concentration.
In this respect, the generally peaceful and reflective atmosphere is particularly helpful. The brief contributions by pupils are excellent; there is a range of accents, and some telling thoughts that will be readily picked up by the listeners. For example, one junior assembly in "Moving Mountains" includes a snippet from a child who felt fearful "when Mum and Dad split up".
Within the overall theme of each unit, the assemblies succeed in covering a number of subjects. The infant assemblies on "Colour", for example, include one on Chinese New Year ("Red Letter Days") and one on the Hindu spring festival of Holi ("The bucket of yellow paint"). The junior assemblies on "Messages" include "The story of Jonah" and "The Dolmetsch Story", recounting the incident where Arnold Dolmetsch, the musicologist, lost a valuable antique recorder.
The songs are drawn from the much used and loved BBC's Come and Praise and from its new infant companion Come and Praise Beginnings. They are, of course, beautifully performed on the tapes. The teacher's book for each series is an essential tool. It contains OHP masters, and a consid-erable amount of background information as well as tips on how to use the assemblies. Perhaps the best preparation would come from listening to the tapes in the car on the way to school. It will not be a chore, for we have here a product that stands firmly by the BBC's traditions of quality and care.
The World Service's 10-part The Art of Writing is also deeply interesting and hugely enjoy-able. Based on the University of East Anglia's MA Creative Writing course, run by Andrew Motion, it takes students through a range of exercises and discussions intended to hone their narrative skills. The pro-gramme on writing dialogue, for example, drawing on the experience of both established writers and students, made you feel that you wanted to try there and then to write some conversation - to try honing, condensing and doing all the things that we were told about.
Although intended for quite advanced students, a good English teacher would not only find these programmes extremely useful for extending his or her own understanding but would probably be able to use them as teaching aids with good GCSE students or sixth-formers.
Tapes for all schools radio programmes are available from BBC Education, White City, LondonW12 7TS. Tel: 0181 746 1111