Sean Coughlan reports on Channel 4's plans for schools. Michael Grade, Channel 4's chief executive, has called for more co-operation between the BBC's schools service and his own channel. Instead of competing for the same classroom audiences, he has proposed that channels should avoid clashes in scheduling, share research work and agree jointly on areas of specialisation. As a token of his intentions, he said that next year's Channel 4 programme guides would cross-trail to BBC programmes, and he hoped that in time the BBC would "return the compliment".
Speaking last week at the first annual Association of Teachers and Lecturers Education Lecture, Michael Grade said: "I believe the time is right for Channel 4 and the BBC to investigate these possibilities with determination. We are not, after all, profit-driven organisations in a cut-throat contest for ratings. We both have an over-riding responsibility to serve teachers and children better."
The response to this from the BBC has been a guarded welcome. Although emphasising the BBC's position as "market leader in schools programmes", the BBC's director of education, Jane Drabble, says that her department "would very much welcome a dialogue with Channel 4. During 1995 we shall be exploring opportunities for shared promotions and have agreed that no new units of programmes from either channel will be scheduled against one another."
Channel 4 is required to take responsibility for schools programmes until 2002, and looking towards the schools services of the future, Michael Grade predicted that changes in technology could overtake current debates about education's place in broadcasting.
Allowing himself a little "techno-speculation", he said that the information superhighway would provide schools with television-on-demand systems which would give them access to "an on-line catalogue of perhaps 300 recently-made series, available to the teacher within a few seconds of punching in a code number on a keypad. Each programme could be rapidly searched and there would be no need for recording, because it would be available for viewing in less time than it takes to pull a disc out of its box".
Channel 4 schools programmes are already being used in British Telecom's video-on-demand system, currently being piloted.
But a national development of such a scheme would require substantial investment, and he warned against letting "the technological future dazzle our understanding of financial realities within which schools operate now".
For adult education, Michael Grade also spoke of his enthusiasm for television's potential, and the need for government to frame regulation to protect the public interest. "I am at heart an optimist about what television can do. I believe passionately in the ability of television to open minds and to broaden horizons. Just consider what immense educational tasks the medium has performed."
While acknowledging the potential of fibre-optic links to homes and schools, he warned that much of the current hype about the information superhighway was "utter nonsense".
"I have no doubt that new distribution technologies will come on stream in the next decade. And I am sure that the convergence of computer and television technologies will amaze us all, but it won't result in 500 mainstream television channels, or even 50.
"It may offer an expansion of niche services, mainly business oriented, and facilitate new forms of communication. But it cannot and will not replicate television channels of the range and standard we enjoy today."
This is because, he said, there isn't enough revenue from advertising or subscriptions to sustain a large number of quality channels. There is a finite number of viewers and viewing hours, he argued, and a rapid increase in channels will mean a division of revenue into smaller and smaller slices.
But before worrying about getting "more boxes with plugs on", he reminded his audience that schools were currently wrestling with more immediate problems, such as trying to avoid making staff redundant. It was a matter of concern, he said, that "that modest goal is not yet in sight".