Overbearing Auntie

A state monopoly of textbooks would be unthinkable. So why, then, should the BBC be allowed to spend millions on free online resources for schools? asks Dominic Savage.

A recent report from the Department for Trade and Industry tells us that the UK has produced world leaders in educational publishing. It is a success story that teachers should appreciate. While the media business may not be a conversation topic in staffrooms, the books and, increasingly, the online resources it produces certainly are. We all know the huge contribution good resources make to effective teaching.

Perhaps the single biggest benefit commercial publishers bring is choice and diversity. The best teachers can choose from many different materials, weaving them together to bring a subject alive. They choose books, software, videos and produce things for themselves. Authors are themselves often teachers, with a passion for learning and innovative, compelling ideas.

All of this creativity is now moving online. The Department for Education and Skills now wants the digital learning resources to exploit the influx of hardware and Internet connections into classrooms. Its Curriculum Online drive is a brave and timely initiative that has the potential to drive forward a world-leading education resources industry. It will also drive teachers into the Internet era - good for learners, good for teachers and good for the UK.

So wouldn't it be dreadful if all this choice was lost and schools were instead restricted to a single series of free, centrally-commissioned resources? Imagine a single state-sponsored set of textbooks, with an orthodox party line. It couldn't happen could it? Well, think again. As learning resources move online, schools are being offered free resources, centrally commissioned, with a government stamp of approval. Educational publishing firms fear that this will eradicate the diversity and innovation that they have made the hallmark of learning resources in the UK.

Two weeks ago on these pages Michael Stevenson of the BBC argued the case for a BBC Digital Curriculum - an enterprise of such scope and scale that it will surely swallow up the growing demand for online schools resources. Stevenson argues that publishers are wrong to fear for their future.

He says the BBC will actually act as a catalyst for further growth in the learning resources market. But will cash-strapped headteachers be able to justify continued spending on alternative products when resources are available for free from the BBC? An economic study commissioned by the Digital Learning Alliance suggests not.

The BBC talks about only addressing 50 per cent of curriculum outcomes, and leaving space for the educational publishers to operate. This is a flawed argument. Show me a teacher who wants to use computers for more than 50 per cent of their lesson time and I'll show you someone who ought to get out more. Or perhaps read some more books.

Stevenson suggests online learning is an unproven concept. Well, it is newish, but not unproven. There is a growing body of evidence that digital learning resources work. Educational software providers are producing innovative approaches and publishers are expanding their products to embrace the Internet. All with the direct, day-to-day involvement of real teachers and underpinned by thorough research.

All very well you might say, but surely the BBC materials will be good enough, and anyway, why should there be profits in education? But is the Digital Curriculum really free? Stevenson talks of a publicly-funded service, but remember in the state sector all funding is public funding. If the pound;150 million of public money (from licence fees) the BBC plans to spend on its digital plans were distributed, it would mean at least pound;5,000 for every school. Why not give them this money to buy the resources they like best.

We do agree that the corporation has a role in education, not just for school pupils but for all of us. We all have a BBC moment when something on its TV or radio programmes illuminated our understanding. But it should have a complementary role, one that plays to their strengths and doesn't duplicate the excellent materials produced by a world-leading educational publishing sector.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is deliberating over the BBC's Digital Curriculum submission. In the interests of all of us in the learning content field, she should ask the BBC to rethink its plans.

The Digital Learning Alliance response to the BBC's proposals is at www.besanet.org.uk. Dominic Savage is director general of the British Education Suppliers Association. The DLA allies BESA and the Publishers' Association with a range of other education publishers.

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