On the eve of the Geographical Association conference, Michael Storm welcomes a series with its eye on the wider world
Are we becoming more frivolously introspective? A recent survey by the International Broadcasting Trust found that the time given over to non-news factual TV programming filmed outside Britain had dropped from 1,037 hours in 1989-90 to 728 hours in 1998-99. In the latter period, most programming on the developing world was about holidays and wildlife - 10 years earlier, development, environmental and cultural topics accounted for half the coverage. Is the curriculum also becoming more parochial? Geography, which is the school subject most concerned with teaching pupils about the contemporary world, has lost the privileged niche it enjoyed a decade ago when the national curriculum was formulated. In many schools, pupils can opt out of any further study of the wider world at 13.
In this context, an outstanding new 10-programme TV series, global in scope and intensely topical in content, deserves an enthusiastic welcome. The series blends continuity and innovation, using in-depth individual, family and enterprise case-studies, as pioneered by the celebrated Brazil (c. 1980) and West Africa (1990) programmes. The 10 themes - globalisation; trade, debt and aid; work and technology; urbanisation; population; agriculture; water; ecosystems; energy; and climate change - are predominantly mainstream geography topics. Where World 2000 is innovative is in its selection of locations (which include Ecuador, Ethiopia, Bulgaria and Malaysia as well as the more commonly featured Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Tanzania, India and China) and in its format.
Each 30-minute programme opens with a mix of micro-soundbites from TV news bulletins which culminate in a single commonly-held perception: "technology destroys jobs", "the world's population is spiralling out of control" and so on. Then, a few quick reservations or contradictions to this received wisdom are signalled, after which the original sentiment is crumpled up and flicked away by an intrusive finger. This will become the series' trademark sequence. The graphics (much more generously deployed than usual) are inventive throughout.
Each programme ends with observations from people we have already met elsewhere in the series. Thus the Greek manager of a Bulgarian textile factory producing goods for an American company, whom we met in programme 1 (globalisation), gives her views about conservation at the end of programme 7 (water). This is an excellent device; it balances the "expert" contributions and reminds us that Ecuadorian banana-growers and Tanzanian goat-herders, like us, have views on all sorts of things, and don't exist merely as visual aids for the study of their localities.
Perhaps the series' main achievement is that it avoids predictability. The importance of topics such as trade, aid and debt, ecological shifts or urbanisation is - as teachers know - no protection against awns. Thus, the population programme gives considerable space to falling populations in developed countries.
Scales are judiciously varied. The energy programme examines not only the Yangtse Three Gorges scheme, but also a miniature hydro project in a remote Peruvian village, where electricity has suddenly made evenings available for socialising (and homework) - though classrooms are still gloomy as the rice farmers need the water during the day.
The critical range of development education is significantly extended by these programmes. For instance, Third World governments, sadly often nepotistic kleptocracies, have traditionally been absent from educational materials, but soundbites from Kenneth Clark and Gordon Brown, and a Malaysian study that features both prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed and a group of disgruntled teenagers, redress the balance. Women are very central - appropriately, since they are commonly the agents of change, adopting new wood-fuel efficient ovens in Ethiopia, diversifying farm incomes in Ghana and Britain, or being virtually incarcerated in "enterprise zone" factories.
World 2000 injects fresh life into what can be an educationally tired topic. From the opening programme, shared by Leeds teenagers linked through their cravings for fashionable sports shoes with Indonesian factory workers, to the treatment of ecology with Zimbabwe's bid to earn income from resurrecting licensed elephant-shooting and thus conserve its savannah, striking connections are made, enabling informed classroom discussions. Powerful photography, ingenious graphics and lively music all help to hold pupils' attention.
The back-up material is an eight-page booklet for each programme, fact sheets for the five countries most frequently re-visited, and sets of colour photographs. The latter are token aides-memoire rather than analysable images, and the space taken by tasks might have been more helpfully used for information on the inevitable "loose ends". Who are the Palestinians? Why does the EU discriminate against Ecuadorian bananas? Why might the government's monopoly of marketing be a problem for Ghanaian cocoa growers?
World 2000 has been co-produced with several European countries, and it will further enhance the high reputation of British educational TV overseas. If prime-time TV's window on the world is contracting, then schools using this splendid series can do something to stem the onset of uninformed insularity.
World 2000, for pupils aged 14-16, will be repeated in the autumn. Available on three video cassettes (pound;7.50 each). These, and a resource pack supporting the series (pound;16.99) are available from BBC Educational Publishing, PO Box 234, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 7EU. Losing Perspective; Global Affairs on British TV 1989-99 by Jennie Stone (pound;6) from the International Broadcasting Trust, 2 Ferdinand Place, London NW I 8EE. The Geographical Association conference opens on April 17. Tel: 0114 296 0088.More television reviews, page 35