Auntie's old box of tricks

26th March 2004 at 00:00
It's 80 years since the BBC's first school broadcast. Adi Bloom looks back with affection

Remember the television test card of the girl with a blackboard, or the clock counting down the seconds until the programme began, and the chirpy presenters - there are many such iconic symbols associated with schools'


Yet it was an academic lecture on Shakespeare's songs, accompanied by a choirboys' rendition of "Jerusalem", that started the British Broadcasting Corporation's on-air education.

Eighty years ago, on April 4, 1924, the first schools' broadcast went out to 70 schools in the London area. The programme, via the wireless, consisted of a music lecture, given by Sir Henry Walford Davies, and involved the vocal talents of six choirboys.

Frank Flynn, controller of children's education, acknowledges it was a line-up that would have modern pupils reaching for the dial. "It took time for broadcasting to hone its skill," he said. "But this was a fantastic statement of intent. It provided a window on the world."

The TES similarly considered the broadcast a significant event. Between debates over whether the school-leaving age should be raised to 15, and reports of the National Union of Teachers' campaign to allow children to attend the new British Empire exhibition for a reduced fee, it reviewed the 1924 programme. The reporter concluded that boys' voices were inclined to sound slightly shrill over a loudspeaker.

And from this unpropitious start grew a range of schools' programming.

Lilian Dailey, 83, who attended North Leeds commercial school in the 1930s, said: "The wireless made lessons more interesting. Geography broadcasts would tell you about places you'd never dreamt of going to."

That radio broadcast set the stage for the advent, in 1952, of schools'

programmes for television by the BBC, or Auntie as it became affectionately known. The first TV broadcast, entitled How muscles work, was a lecture by a Hertfordshire teacher, assisted by a skeleton.

The second programme tried to depict the life of a lighthouse keeper, without showing him or his lighthouse on screen. It was not a success.

Over the years, programmers became more proficient at entertaining viewers.

An entire nostalgia industry is now sustained by such Seventies and Eighties programmes as Look and read, Watch! and Words and pictures, together with the test cards that preceded them.

Last year, 70 per cent of primary teachers used BBC schools' radio, while 62 per cent used schools' television. While 90 per cent of GCSE students used the Bitesize series to revise for their exams.

Schools' broadcasting has also served as the training ground for a number of actors. Denis Waterman, who later appeared in Minder, had a role in drama programme Scene, while Kevin Whately, better known as Inspector Morse's sidekick Lewis, first appeared in Look and Read.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today