Daytime saving?

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Sean Coughlan laments the passing of live school radio - which the BBC insists is a response to changing audience needs

On April 4 1924 composer Sir Walford Davies and choirboys from the Temple Church in London made the first national wireless broadcast to schools - although the BBC in Scotland could lay claim to having presented the first schools programme, with an experimental broadcast earlier that February.

Last week, the last daytime schools programme on national radio was transmitted, an episode of the primary series Poetry Corner, marking the end of an era for schools broadcasting and the breaking of a further link with the BBC's original Reithian foundations.

From next autumn, all schools radio programmes will be distributed on audio-cassette, at a charge of Pounds 2 per series, with night-time broadcasts of all programmes on Radio 3FM (3am to 5am) for those schools with facilities for timed radio taping.

A mixture of pragmatism and necessity has ended an already-reduced daytime service. Since the emergence of cheap and easy-to-use cassette recorders, teachers have found programmes on tape preferable to live broadcasts. Research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research has shown that 91 per cent of schools already use programmes on tape, rather than off-air, with teachers liking the ability to stop and start recordings.

For example, Jonathan Rooke, language co-ordinator at Waverley Abbey Church of England Junior School in Farnham, Surrey, says his school does not use live broadcasts; instead teachers order tapes from a local authority media resources centre.

"Radio is so useful for teaching subjects such as poetry. I would like to have a tape recorder in every classroom, with headphones, using a library of materials recorded from broadcasts." Although it will not change the way he uses programmes, Jonathan Rooke still fears that the loss of daytime broadcasts might mean a further marginalisation of school radio.

Charles Dickens school, Southwark, south London, has one teacher responsible for making recordings.

Headteacher Carol Tomkins says she was brought up in an era when lessons were shaped around the times when radio programmes were broadcast. "Now it is better to collect resources in advance, so that teachers can plan ahead. As such, it's easier to use programmes as tapes rather than live."

As well as adapting to what teachers find more convenient, school radio has also been the captive of decisions beyond its control. In the past six years school radio has been pushed from station to station - from Radio 4 to Radio 5 and then to Radio 3 - with each migration adding to the impression of a service being wound down. In its last berth there were no secondary school programmes and the slot was down to a single hour - even then at a time in the afternoon that was inconvenient to its primary audience (particularly for teachers or ancillary staff responsible for making recordings). Now even that last daytime foothold has gone, to give Radio 3 an uninterrupted classical music service in its ratings battle with Classic FM.

Although schools might be happier using tapes, questions remain about how such a service will continue in the future. While teachers might order more programmes in existing, familiar series, will they want tapes of new series that they can't preview on the radio? For how long will the BBC want to put money into making programmes that are only used on audio-tape? And will talented programme makers want to produce "radio" that will never be heard except on tape?

The BBC is loud in its protests that the changes are a response to the changing needs of its audience and not a surrender to the pressures of competition for airtime. It points out that almost all the current series will be continued, with new programmes in the autumn. In introducing the changes, its education department asserted: "Research in primary schools across the country has shown that broadcasts are no longer the most convenient way to receive programmes. Eighty-eight per cent of teachers said they thought an alternative form of delivery via audio-cassettes or CDs would be an improvement on broadcasting, and 95 per cent of those preferred tapes."

BBC Education's director, Jane Drabble, promises that the BBC is putting its long experience into delivering programmes "in the best possible way", pointing towards a future in which sound is one element in a multimedia package of broadcast materials.

Although there will be a certain nostalgia at the end of generations of radios delivering music and movement lessons on the creaking boards of school halls, there is a degree of predictability in the service's departure.

Outstripped by television and then passed around radio networks like an unwanted guest, school radio's status has been steadily downgraded - everywhere that is except in schools, where the audiences have remained remarkably high.

More than three-quarters of primaries use school radio regularly, with individual programmes being among the most widely used teaching resources of any kind - Let's Move is used in nearly two-thirds of all primary schools.

Taking a generous interpretation of the changes, you might say that this is a case of school radio handing over the baton to new technologies - that BBC Education is interested in looking towards new digital means of distribution rather than simply preserving existing services. But the underlying concern must be that whenever the ratings-hungry radio and television channels want more space, all too often it is education that has to move aside to make room.

BBC School Radio Tapes will deliver school radio programmes on audio-cassette, price Pounds 2 per series, from the autumn term. Further information from BBC Education on 0181 746 1111

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