That all-important choice
If you are a parent with school-age children, consumer choice is not always reassuring. Politicians make education their top priority, but the inference is that schools are failing. In the marketplace educational products multiply and are more and more extravagantly promoted. Don't get it wrong, the warnings say. Don't spoil your child's life chances.
It's a sign of the times, then, that BBC2's new education series is called (misleadingly) Just One Chance and goes out at 8.00pm. The first programme was scheduled against Rolf Harris and cuddly animals, The Bill, Living Planet and the European Cup Winners Cup. Stiff competition - hence, presumably, the big-named presenters (Carol Vorderman and Martin Bashir, no less), the over-busy magazine format, the distracting set and the token studio audience for the carefully rehearsed vox pop contributions.
The advance publicity had promised "hard-hitting investigations", combined with a no-nonsense consumers' guide for parents. Predictably, perhaps, the new series kicked off with yet another feature on the Ridings School. It was "a byword for failure", Carol Vorderman said - and up popped the Office for Standards in Education's Mike Tomlinson, looking uncannily like Jack Straw, to confirm that it had been the worst school he had ever seen. So what had changed? Quite a bit, according to the on-the-spot reporter: half a million pounds of extra funding, a staffroom shake-out, and, in Anna White, an articulate new broom head, determined to lift the school's esteem.
We followed her briefly through the school. She was refreshingly direct ("Miss!, Miss! There's chewing gum on this seat!" - "I said SIT DOWN!"), not least about the Herculean task of involving parents. At the inaugural meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association, though shrewdly held in a local pub, only eight attended (plus, of course, the camera crew). Then back to the studio, for the briefest of discussions on the parent issue ("You do it by stealth, " another head opined, but we had no time for details) and for an even briefer reminder about the school's unchanged predicament - a heavily creamed intake, most of them with learning or behaviour problems. In short, an interesting item, but hardly a fearless investigation.
On then, at a cracking pace, to the next consumer feature, which, like the first, raised issues that deserve a fuller treatment. How good are the mushrooming CD-Rom revision guides, in maths, for instance, that promise success for examination students and their hapless parents? Not always as good as they were claimed; the explanation in one, said maths lecturer Sylvia Johnson, was a good deal harder than the maths itself, and in another, candidates could achieve a reassuring grade C forecast by simple guesswork. Hence the crisp advice: always preview (local libraries will help) and always look for a clear course structure, clear explanation and good use of information technology. Details of three best buys are available from the programme.
And what about the best buy of all - that all-important choice, we're told, of the secondary school your child attends? There is time enough in the eight minutes that remain to dispose of this. It is best, we learn, to take with a great deal of salt what schools say about themselves; the league tables ("though they don't always tell you all they might") and the OFSTED report are more reliable sources. It's best, though, to visit the school and find out for yourself - "You're investing in your child's future. Put your child first! Find out what sort of grip the head has got! PUSH!" And, as if to convince the doubters, we cut to the Cornwallis School in Maidstone, where the head is showing round the reporter-as-parent with her sound and camera team. "What about the nuts and bolts of English grammar, then?" she asks one child. "Do your teachers teach you grammar?" No prizes for guessing the response.
So yes, it's superficial. Any one of the questions posed and left unanswered in these exchanges - "How can I judge the quality of teaching?" for example - would have made material for a programme that wanted to tackle the real issues that parents face when they try to separate the reality of education from the myth that politicians and the media often foster.
But magazine features always are superficial. Judged on its own level, this first programme was sensible, balanced and realistic. It was also refreshingly positive. The schools we saw were confident institutions, open to parents and to parents' views and as anxious as parents themselves to do the best they could for their young charges. The teachers and heads were competent, committed and professional. The students were articulate and polite. By the standards of some recent reporting, that is an advance indeed. Just One Chance looks quite promising, in fact. It could do well.