Radio show's last dance
The first director-general of the BBC, John Reith, laid the foundations for the fledgling corporation more than 70 years ago, developing a vision of public service broadcasting that soon became an international symbol of quality.
Central to the BBC's charter was its firm commitment to educational provision and, from its earliest years, school radio was a part of the daily diet of broadcasts. In February 1924 the first programmes made specifically for schools were broadcast; a regular schools service was launched in the following autumn.
This daytime classroom of the air is now about to shut, with this term's programmes being the last that school radio will broadcast in a form that can be used directly off-air. From next September, programmes will be distributed on audio-cassettes or transmitted in the middle of the night for recording, although it is uncertain how long this final overnight slot will last.
Playtime, a series for music, dance and story-telling, is in a long tradition of music and movement lessons and powerful dramatisations that, over the decades, have provided professional survival kits for thousands of teachers. More important they also gave a therapeutic outlet of pure fantasy for millions of small Britons in their formative years.
Since 1934, music and movement for infants has been part of the weekly school radio schedule, with a receiver set up in the classroom or in the school hall. The introduction of tape recorders brought the opportunity to stop and rewind programmes, letting you and your class relax and rewind with your eyes, broadening the mind, music scattering Martians across the hall floor. School radio allowed potential poets of the future to muse with Michael Rosen, or be inspired by soundscapes of the great outdoors on a dark day in winter. The fear must be that there will be fewer of these in the future as the profile of school radio is lowered so much that it almost disappears.
Playtime, aimed at nurseries, playgroups and reception classes, has a gentle blend of movement, fantasy, stories, poems and songs - all the benefits of good radio - and adds to a strong library of movement programmes. Series such as Let's Move and Time to Move follow on naturally from Playtime and will already be familiar to many teachers. All you need to introduce children to dance is a modicum of space in which to work, a modicum of space in your busy day and a radio or cassette recording of the programmes.
The Playtime programme notes set out the aims for the series clearly: providing a grounding in the creative arts for younger children, with a focus on responsive movement work linked to simple themes.
The guidance on preparation and follow-up work is simple and requires minimal teacher input, although the emphasis is very much on first-hand experiences. There are two units of four programmes, the first being linked to the theme of getting out and about. Each programme also invites some quiet involvement in the vivid colours of sound broadcasting. There is lots of lovely language-painting in simple narratives of outings with Grandma, hot summer days, fun and games in the garden.
Stories such as The Enormous Turnip and Meg's Veg by Jan Pienkowski are guaranteed successes in any setting. There are reliable repetitive ditties scattered in between plenty of new poems to capture the imagination. The voices of the presenters are fresh and their accents are bright and diverse. The direction for movement sequences is friendly but very much to the point and the sound effects will give the tiddlers the odd giggle and help the more inhibited to enjoy inhabiting their imagination. The second unit of four programmes is focused on special days and special people. At the end of the programme booklet, there is an excellent listing of sources for dozens of additional poems and stories.
This rich mixture of the traditional and familiar with fresh and less recognisable material is exactly what radio for schools was always so good at producing. Will we ever hear its like again?