School radio is about to disappear from the day-time schedule and become a tape service. Is this the beginning of the end, asks Bill Hicks. The BBC's board of governors last week approved a decision to cease daytime transmissions of school radio programmes after the summer term, replacing them with a pre-recorded tape service, for which schools will be charged around Pounds 2 per series per term.
Although there will still be night-time broadcasts on Radio 3FM (at variable times after 1.00am) and a limited daytime service on Radio Ulster for Northern Ireland, it's hard to see the change as anything other than a further step in the marginalisation of this 71-year-old service.
Over the past five years school radio has been bumped down from a morning slot on Radio 4FM, to a scratchy medium wave berth on Radio 5 to its present mid-afternoon resting place on Radio 3FM a slot disliked by many in its primary school audience, because of its incompatibility with the school day.
From next autumn the main delivery of school radio will be in the form of tapes and after that, where next? According to the BBC's director of education, Jane Drabble, the future lies in new technology and the potential of multimedia teaching materials of which "radio" will be a part. But for the next few years it will be tape, and she rejected outright any suggestion that the switch amounts to a downgrading of the service.
"We should not allow sentimentality for the use that was made of radio in the past to get in the way of providing the most appropriate technology for teachers now," she said.
Accepting that the Radio 3 slot had been "un-ideal", Drabble argued that switching to tape was not merely a good compromise, but a positive step which would liberate teachers from the sheer fuss of recording off-air and thus make them more willing to use a wider range of programmes.
According to a recent National Foundation for Educational Research survey, 91 per cent of primary teachers already use taped versions of the programmes in the classroom. Follow-up research by BBC Education revealed that 88 per cent of primary teachers would prefer pre-recorded tapes to broadcasts and 95 per cent wanted cassettes rather than CDs or CD-Roms.
Finally, a telephone poll of smaller schools found that a "majority would have no problem with paying" for the tapes. "We took the decision to charge very, very carefully. The programmes will continue to be funded by the licence fee. But the additional costs of duplicating, processing orders, packaging and so on would have meant less money for making programmes. Schools are already paying for cassettes to make their own recordings, so this is not really an extra charge," Jane Drabble said.
Order forms will be sent with next term's programme information, tapes will be despatched via the existing distribution system for support materials and schools with an ERA (Educational Recording Agency) licence can make copies of tapes.
But while teachers might order tapes of popular series such as Let's Move or Time to Move, how likely are they to buy new series which they have never heard? Jane Drabble believed that the end of daytime transmissions would not inhibit the development of new series, nor would it hinder teachers' ability to decide what to use in the future. "The previewing process will continue in much the same way as it does now," she said with most buying decisions made on the basis of the detailed descriptions circulated to schools.
If tape is the best solution for school radio, how long before a similar decision is made for schools television, which already has its night-time slot on BBC2? This was not a consideration, Jane Drabble said: "Television is a completely different matter." And if research had shown that teachers wanted daytime broadcasts, would school radio have kept its afternoon hours? "I'm sure that we would but that's a hypothetical question."