Schools television is vital to improving literacy, argues Robin Moss. But Whitehall does not agree
Primary schools are now receiving pound;1,000 to spend on books and raise literacy standards. A colleague rang the Government's hotline to ask if the money could be spent on buying extra videos to support and stimulate reading, such as Channel 4's Rat-a-tat-tat!? Or the BBC's Words and Pictures? There was a pause, but only for the mandarin to draw breath: "No videos, under any circumstances."
This is interesting, to put it mildly. There is ample evidence that carefully-designed television programmes are a vital "trigger" for some early readers. Research published this week by the Independent Television Commission showed, not for the first time in the 40 years of schools television in Britain, that this free resource is widely used by teachers and well respected. Someone ought to tell the civil servants.
There may be "management" problems about using video material within a school's literacy hour, but there can be no doubt of its educational value.
The new report, The Future of Schools Television, is timely. Designed and written by Paul Kelley, a distinguished researcher and now the principal of a community high school in North Tyneside, it surveyed the views of teachers, students and departments in this metropolitan authority, which employs some 1,700 teachers, and in some Newcastle schools.
So what do we learn? Well, first, as three previous ITC reports have shown since l990, schools television is alive and well. Nearly half of all teachers use it at least once or twice weekly, and that rises to more than 75 per cent of primary teachers.
Second, the reputation of schools television with teachers is very high indeed. Teachers, whether they use the resource or not, in all four reports said they regarded it as reliable and produced to a high standard. By contrast, any research carried out by the publishers to check teacher attitudes to particular book products is kept strictly confidential "for commercial reasons". Quite.
The research demonstrates clearly that, where they have access to it, students both like and learn from educational television, rating it more highly than many other learning methods. It is also clear that different students respond to different media in distinctive ways. This is an unsurprising finding for anyone who has ever taught, but goes against the popular image of television as simply nurturing couch potatoes.
Paul Kelley is still a teacher, his heart in the class or group and his mind turned to teacher concerns throughout the report. The design included four case studies, two of primary schools, two of secondary departments, written as analytical essays by the relevant decision-maker in each school. These are fascinating, describing the diverse range of television experiences offered children and also highlighting school contrasts.
Everything great in the telly garden, then? Well, no. Once upon a time there was a body called the Council for Educational Technology, which encouraged progress on several fronts embraced by that wide phrase, including educational television, broadcast or not. Since the National Council for Educational Technology replaced it, "educational technology" has become synonymous with IT. Even Information and Communications Technology, the current phrase of choice, is a synonym for IT for most people.
The NCET's successor, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), now has a vital role to play, redressing the balance by widening its membership and its activities to take full account of all digital resources, including schools television, which is already in the forefront of new technology developments.
There is something pretty odd about the whole situation, frankly. Several hundred hours of expensively-produced new programmes, together with repeats of previous units, are made available to schools each year, free of charge. Teachers clearly value the material and recognise its quality; nearly half would like to use it more - yet feel that "the authorities" don't support their use of it. Why? Only one in 10 of the teachers could recall any training in using television, and of those, 70 per cent had had less than two hours' training in their whole career.
"No videos, please, we're civil servants," ignores evidence from the report which shows that those students who particularly enjoy learning from television are significantly more likely to value reading.
Perhaps television is a victim of its own success. The Box in the Corner still attracts a lot of attention in home life, but opinion-formers sometimes seem to regret its influence. It is all guilt by association - dumbing down, bad language, violence. Many are happy to find a convenient totem to bash, yet "media literacy", developing the skills to get the most out of the media available, is still taught in few British schools, by contrast with North America.These are the skills that the children of today and tomorrow are going to need.
Whatever you think of British television as a whole (usually rated "the least bad system around"), be assured that British schools television is ace. Actually, it's unique. No other schools television operation provides such a range of targeted programmes and resources. The two systems (BBC Schools and Channel 4 Schools) carry off award after award in Europe, America and world-wide. In 1996, Channel 4 won the supreme Japan Prize against 171 entries from 46 countries, and the BBC did the same in 1997.
No wonder the teachers trust and admire them. And that's important. As we start to build the National Grid for Learning, the reliability and identity of resources, whether online or offline, will become more and more important. Schools television, which understandably has a long experience of (award-winning) CD-Rom production and of developing online services, is going to be a leading force in these areas. It has been said that their libraries represent the most valuable and trustworthy audio-visual materials available to BECTA in starting to build the national grid.
We have moved on since the High Master of Manchester Grammar School, Lord James, thundered in 1957: "Over my dead body will a television set for looking and listening to the BBC, and still more for looking at ITV, enter the school".
Within three years, he was to be heard in the Lords, declaring that television for schools was "very good". Similarly, OFSTED in 1993 commented that broadcasts "provided a stimulus which most teachers used effectively to support and enrich the curriculum. The quality of work in 80 per cent of these lessons was satisfactory or better".
With all the hype on other technologies flashing about just now, there may be a battle ahead to keep the "window on the world" clear, and open. Our own guess is that the average citizen in five years will access the Internet via digital television, rather than buying a smart PC. We need to be working towards convergence, not exclusion, in education above all other fields.
Robin Moss is head of educational broadcasting at the Independent Television Commission