No hatchet jobs, no hand-wringing

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Next week, a television programme about education will try to lure an audience that would never normally think of switching to such a thing - and certainly not at peak soap-watching hour.

Just One Chance, starting next Thursday on BBC2 at 8pm will, its producer Sandy Smith hopes, bring in a working-class audience that might otherwise be watching The Bill or Animal Hospital. Research for the programme suggests that concern about education is running even higher among the C2DEs than among middle-class parents.

But how will the programme tempt viewers away from the rival attractions? How will it avoid the boring worthiness that has so often bedevilled programmes about education?

Mr Smith's answer is touchingly honest. "Carol Vorderman," he says. The ubiquitous presenter, who has an audience of 8.5 million for her new programme The Vorderman Mysteries, is not only popular but an education enthusiast and the author of a maths textbook which has sold more than 200,000 copies. She will be sharing the presenting with Martin Bashir of Panorama fame (best known for the Diana interview and the programme about The Ridings School, Halifax).

The programme will not, however, be relying solely on big-name presenters for its impact. Mr Smith is aiming to bring popular consumer journalism - the approach of programmes such as Watchdog: Value for Money - to education for the first time. This will be education television aimed at parents.

"Obviously," he says, "you can't cover subjects like choice of school or teaching methods as you would a dodgy exhaust pipe or face cream. But we start with the feeling that parents are beginning to be treated like consumers. "

Not that Just One Chance will be a simple "how to" programme. We are talking proper BBC News and Current Affairs here, recorded only two days before transmission, reacting to the latest news and hoping to break its own stories. Each half-hour programme will include three subjects. Next week the first programme kicks off with "The Ridings: one year on", a seven-minute film followed by a studio discussion with parents. Then comes a consumer report on maths CD-Roms, followed by "how to road-test a school". Future programmes will include classroom discipline, home-school contracts and myths about league tables. There will not, says Mr Smith, be much about teachers' pay, although one slot shows a week in the life of a primary teacher and then asks undergraduates to comment.

He says there is a definite need and enthusiasm among parents for this kind of information. "When we showed tapes of a pilot programme to groups of parents, they almost bit our hands off."

Television programmes about education have tended to fall into one of two categories: the hatchet job on a school (Panorama on The Faraday School, Ealing, or The Ridings) or, in Sandy Smith's words, "good solid programmes for TES readers and professional hand-wringers", such as Education Matters and Class Action.

Mr Smith is anxious to get away from both: to reach a wider audience - more than 1 million in England - and to reveal both the bad and the good in the system; to show parents, in other words, how much difference a good head and committed teachers can make.

In his attempt to focus on both bad and good he has encountered a consistent problem. It proved difficult to talk to the schools and teachers that had been singled out for praise. However, Anna White of The Ridings - a school with acknowledged problems - had agreed to take part. A headteacher championed by David Blunkett when he launched his literacy campaign initially agreed to appear, then refused and finally said her union had advised her against doing so.

"There's a paranoid fear of being seen to be bad or an irrational fear of being seen to be boasting," says Mr Smith. He thinks this indicative of "a terribly sad, insular mindset" among teachers. "The thought that another school with the same sort of kids is doing much better is very threatening to them."

"If schools want to raise their image," he concludes, "they've got to be better about showing off about doing well."

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