Interview - 'They can watch us while they're doing the ironing'

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Andrew Bethell, former teacher and now head of Teachers TV - currently celebrating its fifth birthday - says he was told no one would want his 'baby'

How did Teachers TV come into being?

The brief by David Miliband (the then schools minister) in 2003 was fairly vague. He asked the question: "Can we use digital TV to go into classrooms to record and share good and interesting practice?" We went on to create a TV channel for the whole school workforce that did just that.

How did teachers respond to the idea?

Most of the feedback we received was that teachers didn't have the time or the inclination to watch professional development programmes, especially when Desperate Housewives or ER was on. It was quite a hard sell; it still is. The mindset has always been, "Why would I bother to watch that?" It all comes down to the high quality and the length of the programmes. Some thought they should be just three minutes long - about the length of clips online, while others thought it should be half an hour, like TV programmes. In the end we settled for 15 minutes - roughly the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. People say it is very compulsive: they watch one 15-minute programme and then another, until they have watched for an hour or so.

And what feedback do you receive now?

People say: "It's really very good," with their inflection going up at the end as if they are surprised. They tell us it's watchable, pacy and interesting. Two lovely phrases keep coming out. One is that it's "guilt-free relaxation" - teachers can watch it while they are doing the ironing and feel like they are gaining skills at the same time. The other is that it reminds them why they became a teacher. Sometimes teachers are so busy, they lose sight of that.

Have there been any major hiccups along the way?

There have been a few problems outside our own making. Sky bundled us from its news and current affairs area to its specialist section (in February 2006) - right between an online dating channel and adult content. Despite all our protestations, we are still there today. The other setback was with Freeview, which positioned us in the midnight to 6am slot. We have now traded those six hours for two hours each day from 4pm to 6pm.

How many people watch Teachers TV?

We get a lot of passing traffic. About half a million people watch it a month - 60 per cent of whom are outside the school workforce. We are very proud of the fact that after just three and a half years, about 25 per cent of the school workforce watch Teachers TV each month. That is despite the fact that we didn't initially target teacher trainees. The ratio of people watching it on TV and online used to be 80:20, but it is now more half and half. In 2005, we were the only broadcaster in the world to show all of our programmes on the web. They all stay there too - we have got up to 4,000 programmes on the website today.

What has been your favourite programme?

I find it hard to single one out because they are all my babies to a certain extent, but I did love the Teaching Challenge with (the BBC presenter and journalist) John Humphrys. He taught a disastrous grammar lesson at a school, which culminated in a 16-year-old girl standing up and saying: "Excuse me, Mr Humphrys, you keep asking questions but you never listen to the answers." Teaching With Bayley, fronted by (behaviour expert) John Bayley, has also been a great success, and Ted Wragg (the educationalist, who died in 2005) was an amazing friend of the channel. Ted Wragg meets (politician and academic) Shirley Williams was a classic piece of television.

How cost-effective is Teachers TV?

We are paid #163;10.5 million a year, having had our budget cut by a third last year. Nineteen million Teachers TV videos were viewed last year, which equates to 62p a view. Your average CPD course costs #163;200 per person, so I think we fully justify our costs.

Do you miss teaching?

I miss the direct contact with kids, but I wanted a more creative challenge. It seems a tougher job now; there are many more demands on teachers. I'm privileged to see into more classrooms than most, albeit at a slight distance. We have filmed in 5,000 schools. I see some of the bad stuff, but when I see the good stuff, it lifts my heart every time.

What would you change about education today?

I would tell Mr Balls that the success of any education system is based on the quality of its teachers, not resources and not shiny new buildings, as nice as they are. Professional support has to be at the heart of what we do. When tough decisions have to be made, teachers should not be abandoned.

Teachers TV celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, and is showcasing 40 of its top videos - from inspiring lesson ideas to resources for continuous professional development - to celebrate. Visit for more information.


2006: Chief executive and creative director of Teachers TV

2003: Joined Brook Lapping consortium bidding for Teachers TV in the role of director of programmes

2001: Received the Royal Television Society's Judges Award for Outstanding Contribution to Educational Broadcasting

1987: Founded independent production company Double Exposure. Work includes series about a year in the life of an inner-city primary in east London

1970-1987: Teacher, head of year, head of English and media studies, and head of sixth form at secondary schools in and around Hackney, east London.

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