Don't blame the boffins on the box

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
AS a rule I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who work in television. They inflict on us some really terrible programmes and sometimes I despair of anything that is a) interesting, b) well-made and c) made by people who seem to inhabit anywhere other than trendy London postcodes.

Frankly, I've given up watching a lot of TV because much of it is so dull and boring. (Well not as dull and boring as in most other countries. In Spain Sunday Night at the London Palladium seems to be on every night and in the United States, soaps and gameshows seem to be programmed for the least intelligent by the least intelligent).

However, I do start having some sympathy for broadcasters when I see TV blamed for almost everything including poor reading skills among children and adults. Last week an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey on adult literacy was published. This showed that we have more adults with poor literacy skills compared to most other industrialised countries. We seem to do well compared with former Eastern bloc countries - the ones that said that they had dealt with adult literacy problems 20-30 years ago - but not too well against other countries. So we have more adults with relatively weak literacy skills than Sweden, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

This is depressing but hardly new news. It's depressing because, in a relatively rich and developed country, few young people should leave school without the basic skills most take for granted. We shouldn't be satisfied with low attainment and low aspiration for our own children, so weshouldn't be satisfied with them for any children.

However, to blame TV viewing seems perverse. It might be true if this was a recent problem. Say with adults that left school only in the past 20 years. Because if it's an older problem it will be difficult to blame TV. I'm no expert but I don't think TV was so widely available in the 1950s and the amount of TV watched by children was lower in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today. Yet we seem to have done worse in terms of literacy skills compared to other countries in every age group including those adults who are now within a few years of retirement age. This suggests that watching TV cannot have been the most major factor.

Even if TV is a major factor, it's unlikely that we can limit access to TV. Rather we have to acknowledge that we live in a world where almost everyone has access to information from a range of sources and where literacies count as much as literacy. A world where we have to harness the power and appeal of TV to encourage and develop literacy skills among the young and the not so young, rather than see television as a "scapegoat'" for low educational attainment.

In my experience TV - and people who work in TV - have tried rather hard to help raise standards of literacy and have kept helping even when the fashions have changed. The commitment of broadcasters in the days when no one seemed to care makes me leap to their defence. So let's not blame watching TV for our rather more complex literacy problem. Now the Internet, that's a different story.

The author is director of the Basic Skills Agency

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