How can they do that?

24th May 1996 at 01:00
LIFESCHOOL A to Z Age range: 14 plus BBC2 Thursdays 1.00pm. April 18 to May 16. Teachers' notes Pounds 2. BBC Education 0181 746 1111

Topical moral dilemmas are given a thorough airing by a group of cub reporters. Laurence Alster finds plenty of subjects for debate. Seeing herself in "U is for Under-Age", the first programme in the current schools television series, Lifeschool, there was one moment when teenager Zoe Dark must have wished she hadn't gone anywhere near the cameras. One of a team of three cub reporters investigating the relationship between age and emotional maturity, Zoe put a question to psychologist Dr Mark McDermott: "Do you think there should be an across-the-board age for things we do?"

"My feeling," replied Dr McDermott, "is that, er, we should be free to associate and to affiliate with whom we wish without there being too much of an authoritarian kind of structure in and around that". Having for the moment run out of long words, he paused; whereupon the editor inserted a "noddy" P a cutaway shot that showed Zoe nodding vigorously to signal understanding.

Only a tiny percentage of the target audience could have had the foggiest idea of what Dr McDermott was on about. Nor, in all probability, did poor Zoe. This was a classic case of someone looking rather silly by being made to seem too clever. And it was a moment that could have sunk the whole programme.

Fortunately for Zoe and the audience, "U is for Under-Age" improved until, in the end, it actually redeemed itself. Darting from interview to interview, from topic to related topic, the featured youngsters presented classrooms with enough debating points to have hands in the air all over the country.

Direct questions got equally straight answers. A Muslim spokeswoman spelled out the rules for adolescent boys and girls: no smoking, no drinking, no clubbing. Too tough a regime for many, no doubt, but the opposite, illustrated by tales of children sleeping rough in Soho, rising teenage suicide rates and sundry other awful consequences of teenage waywardness, will have had young viewers working out some interesting cost-benefit ratios.

The second programme, "V is for Vivisection" encouraged the same exercise. Between horrible pictures of rabbits, cats and dogs having what seemed very painful things done to them, another trio of reporters sought justification for such activities.

In a thorough and intelligent survey, most interviewees condoned animal vivisection for medical research, but not for cosmetics. Not many surprises there. At the same time, the programme took pains to show that the medical research issue was more complex than some might think.

"Unreliable, unethical and inhumane," was the verdict of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, while a spokeswoman for another anti- vivisectionist society pointed out that reliance on animal experiments might have impeded rather than enhanced medical progress. Not so, said cancer research specialist Dr Nick Wright, whose defence of the practice was all the more difficult for being made after the reporters had watched an anti- vivisection video, horrified.

Dr Wright's belief in the necessity for the continued use of "integrated organisms" P live animals P gained weight from an interview with a young mother suffering from multiple sclerosis. Abstract moral arguments were all very well when it wasn't your life in the balance, she pointed out. As ever, personalising the issue gave it another dimension altogether, even to the extent of silencing the most committed animal rights advocate of the three reporters. It was a riveting survey: fast, full of questions, and never tediously didactic.

While "XYZ is for Education" did not quite match it for quality, it still offered an abundance of talking points. These came mainly from an entertainingly wide range of parents, pundits and pupils eager to advise others on what they felt was a proper education.

While the deputy head teacher of a London comprehensive talked of turning out "confident, responsible, young people", public school student Napoleon Ryan felt that a traditional academic schooling was more likely to pay dividends. At Pounds 4,000 a term, his parents presumably felt the same. He was followed by professor of education Roland Meighan, whose complaint about the "bullying to learn" that goes on in schools will have gladdened a few young hearts.

What, though, were the alternatives? The young reporters turned up some interesting, if not altogether convincing opinions. A parent, unhappy with formal education, had decided to teach her children at home; another mother had shown her son the real meaning of learning by taking him round the world; and a pop star, Jim Bob of Carter USM, testified to the overall irrelevance of education to showbiz: "There's more room for anarchy in schools," he submitted.

So that's what's missing from the Dearing Report.

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