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Teaching the world in the open

Jenny Stevens (right) is a woman with a mission: helping to educate people all over the globe. Bernard Adams reports on her successes

The BBC World Service has always had education in its bones. Nowadays, it is much more explicit about its educational mission. As a result, it is providing a range of radio programmes that are flexible enough to benefit an impoverished individual in Afghanistan, a family in Africa or a hard-pressed teacher in Britain.

Jenny Stevens, who has been running the service's education department since 1993, was involved in some of the BBC's adult education successes in the Seventies. Very much in the spirit of those expansionist days, she has recently been mounting one campaign after another, often raising extra money herself, to reach needy but aspirational people around the globe.

Last autumn the service concentrated on the subject of drugs - no fewer than 24 series went out in English and 20 other languages ranging from Pashto to Persian, Thai to Tamil, under the title Drug Watch. There were case histories of drug users in different parts of the world, an authoritative series in English on the mind-altering properties of some plants and a play abouta young student's fatal overdose.

The international impact was considerable: the narcotics bureau in Hong Kong wanted tapes of the series. In Britain, the programmes provided excellent material for, at the very least, personal and social education. And they impressed an inmate in Brixton prison so much that he wrote a letter of appreciation.

Other campaigns have been equally successful. "I'm proud of a series we did in 1996 called Sexwise about sex and reproductive health," says Jenny. "It was sponsored by the International Planned Parenthood Federation and it told audiences in Pakistan, Iran, India and Turkey things that they could not have heard through local sources because of cultural taboos."

She sees World Service education programmes as having two roles: operating at the cutting edge, taking on subjects that the local media will not cover (such as Sexwise), and filling in educational gaps in countries such as Africa where secondary schooling often reaches only a low level. The Learning Zone, an international radio version of the late-night educational television format, has been designed to address this need.

Perhaps the biggest problem the service faces is providing back-up. "The real difficulty is distribution," Jenny explains. "It can be very complicated and expensive. For example, in the great expanses of central Asia there is virtually no postal system."

As the tiger economies crumble, a series of programmes will be broadcast this spring in various languages to China, Indonesia and Vietnam on how to develop small businesses.

In the autumn there will be series on ageing - one an international overview, the other a more personalised series.

Jenny is one of five commissioning editors for the English service, which has 35 million listeners worldwide and regularly reaches 1.3 million in Britain. Among ther programmes on offer is Michael Diamond's excellent 15-part series Civilization, which has an 80-page illustrated booklet to accompany it.

In Tim Lewellyn's forthcoming important series on the Palestinian conflict, Your Land is My Land, he considers if there is any way that Arabs and Jews can live as equals rather than as victor and vanquished. Another series that marks Israel's 50th anniversary is Israel Among the Nations, in which Roger Hardy examines the country's relationship with the rest of the world.

All in all, it is a promising catalogue of programmes.

* BBC World Service is on 648HZ463m on medium wave in the daytime in London and the South East; also on short wave in the 75m, 31m, 25m and 19m bands. At night on 92.4-94.6 FM, 720 MW and 198 LW and on various local radio stations.

* Civilization is broadcast on Sundays until March 22 at 4.15pm (but not on MW); Your land Is My Land Mondays from March 9, 10.30am; Israel Among the Nations Sundays from May 10, 5.01pm.

* BBC Education Stand PV9

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