RTS Educational Television Awards

Has schools television come of age? The Royal Television Society clearly thinks so. The profile of its annual education awards has steadily risen since their inception in 1981. This year, they reflect not only the best in educational television, but the changes taking place in the technologies, in methods of presentation and even in the concept of what qualifies as "educational" television.

Last April, BBC Education merged into a new division called Factual and Learning. "Not to smother it," said director general Greg Dyke, "but to bring it out of the closet, to show the importance we attach to it, to let more of our top programme makers bring their talents to bear on it."

The success of Walking with Dinosaurs, one of the BBC science titles shortlisted for a new RTS award, Educational Impact in the Prime Time Schedule, shows that educational programmes can pull massive audiences. It attracted an average of 17 million viewers a week. But it was the TWICarlton co-production The Second World War in Colour that won the award. Here is a film about recent history, combining superb archive footage and personal testimony, which has many classroom applications.

The arrival of new technologies is marked by a Multimedia and Interactive award - although Stephen Heppell, chair of this year's award jury, was disappointed in some of the entries. He says: "We were dismayed by the lack of creative tools that allow children to make a contribution. The entries were more about consumption than creation."

But he was impressed by the shortlist and the winner, Rainforest Development: the Amazonia experience, an interactive CD-Rom for GCSE geography that uses video footage, quizzes and problem-solving to help students appreciate the importance of the rainforest and the extent of its destruction.

But the main focus of the awards is still the traditional schools programme - although here, too, styles are changing. Programmes may be fronted by familiar faces from primetime television, but the most noted presenter this year is a new face. Sixth-former Eliot Brown brings clarity and enthusiasm to the Channel 4 documentary Land Forms: ice, from the series Scientific Eye, winner of the Secondary Humanities award.

Aerial photography of landscapes in Britain and Iceland, clear graphics and a lucid commentary introduce basic geological concepts and vocabulary. The result is a pleasure to watch - and the sort of programme that merits a primetime audience.

Another science programme, also in the Scientific Eye series, that effectively exploits a variety of techniques to put across difficult concepts is Materials and Their Properties, winner of the Primary and Secondary Science and Maths award. It uses poems by Lemn Sissay, cartoons and film to explain the differences between solids, liquids and gases, and how materials can change from one to the other.

The awards go to individual programmes, so a consistently good series, such as Scientific Eye, can win more than once.

This is also the case with the BBC's well-established secondary strand English File. Roots and Water, a film about the three poets Letiaz Dharker, Tatakkhulu Afrika and Grace Nichols, won the Secondary Arts and Languge award. All three writers have put down roots in countries other than their place of birth, and their work explores themes of change and identity. This visually enchanting film describes three fascinating life stories and brings the poets' work to life.

The literacy and numeracy strategies have inevitably had an impact on educational television. This year's Primary Numeracy and Literacy award went to an episode from the biggest single commission ever made by Channel 4 Learning, Number Crew (90 episodes in the first series, and another on the way).

One of the reasons for its success has been a sustained effort on the part of the production company, Open Mind, to follow government guidelines on numeracy. Producer Chris Ellis recalls that when the series started, the national numeracy project existed only in draft form, so the team was working partly in the dark. But the aim throughout has been "taking specific objectives and bringing them to life".

Presenter Tony Robinson brings the authority of Time Team to BBC Zig Zag's A Walk through Time, winner of the Primary Arts and Humanities award. "Get your trainers on," he tells viewers. "We're going for the longest walk you've ever been on."

Executive producer Clare Elstow explains the thinking behind the series:

"Many teachers think they do chronology, but they only cover it within the period, while the curriculum makes clear that it should be much broader than that."

Zig Zag helps to meet that need. In the course of the films, which use dramatisation and 3-D graphics, Robinson takes viewers through urban and rural landscapes, showing how buildings and other features have changed in the past 2,000 years. Each programme focuses on one area of life, such as fashion, health and, in the winning film, work.

Teachers (and reviewers) watch a lot of supposedly educative television during the year. The RTS awards allow us to recall the highlights and recognise how much imaginative effort and skilful use of technologies go into the very best.


* Pre school and infants - Tweenies: Blow (TellTale Productions for BBC Education)

* Primary Numeracy and Literacy - Number Crew Sports Day (Channel 4 Learning)

* Primary Arts and Humanities - Zig Zag: A Walk through Time - Work (BBC Education)

* Primary and Secondary Science and Maths - Scientific Eye: Materials and their Properties - changing state (Yorkshire TV for Channel 4)

* Primary and Secondary Multimedia and Interactive - Rainforest Development: the Amazonia experience (Channel 4 Learning with InSignificant Productions)

* Secondary Arts and Language - English File: Roots and Water (BBC Education)

* Secondary Humanities - Place and People: Land Forms - ice (Flying Pictures for Channel 4)

* Adult Campaign - Brookie Basics (Channel 4)

* Vocational Training Student Choice '99 (Wobbly Picture Productions for BBC Education)

* Adult Educational - Embarrassing Illnesses: Testicular Cancer (Maverick for Channel 4)

* Educational Impact in the Prime Time Schedule - The Second World War in Colour (TWICarlton for ITV)

* The judges' award - BBC Education Online

Robin Buss

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