Fears over shows for rock star wannabes

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
FIVE o'clock on a Friday used to be synonymous with Crackerjack and Leslie Crowther dispensing pencils to participants enjoying their five minutes of fame.

Today, it signals the time when thousands of youngsters pick up the phone and vote for their favourite act on Steps to the Stars, the show for "wannabe" singers, musicians, dancers, magicians and comedians.

After an interview on the couch with Clare and H, of the pop band Steps, it is the turn of the performers aged between eight and 17 to prove in front of the TV cameras and an audience of enthusiastic children that they could be the Steps of tomorrow.

"At last children have the chance to show us what secret talents they are hiding," said Lorraine Heggessey, head of BBC children's programmes, at the time of its launch.

"Who knows, we might find the next Jack Dee, Madonna or Ricky Martin!"

But, in the same week the show went on air, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, warned that schools were battling against the influences of pop and fashion.

His concerns have been echoed by the National Union of Teachers, which believes there is too much emphasis on the possibility of a career as a pop star or footballer these days.

"There is a lack of balance," said a spokeswoman, "and there seems to be no information about the downside of fame."

The programme-makers see it as giving children the opportunity to do what they like doing best: dressing up and performing.

It is the stuff, after all, of any end-of-term concert.

And the idea is certainly not new. In the late 1950s, Huw Weldon presented All Your Own, one of the first teeny talent shows.

Roy Thompson, head f commissioning of children's programmes at the BBC says:

"The programme is not about fame. It is about getting kids doing what they like doing.

"It is a show meant to entertain children on their own terms. Over the past 30 years of children's television we have always made talent programmes.

"In our experience, children are straightforward about this. They see the performers as other children and they have straightforward views of whether they are good or not.

"I think teachers themselves will see the programme in the context of our whole output from programmes about science to Blue Peter and Newsround."

Elaine Kay, headteacher of Gillas Lane primary school, in Houghton-le-Spring, Sunderland, agrees.

"Children will always love their pop stars and if they can take them off it is a bit of fun for them, but I don't think they take it seriously," she said. "Fame is a far-off thing for them."

Elizabeth Grugeon, a senior lecturer at De Montfort University's school of education, also believes talent shows are harmless fun, unless the child is being pushed by an over-zealous adult.

"A programme like Steps to the Stars is really transferring into the public arena what children do all the time in the playground," said Mrs Grugeon, who has studied the rise in "girl power" in the playground during the 1990s.

"Kids will say 'We like playing the Spice Girls and we like playing Tig and Stuck in the Mud' and they don't see a big difference."

And if they were in any doubt about the difference, or the price of fame, they only need to look at the current trials and tribulations of Victoria and David Beckham.

Fame school, 23

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