Could watching television boost teachers' morale? The answer, in the opinion of the Department for Education and Skills, is a perhaps surprising yes. Which is why it is planning to pilot a new digital television channel specifically aimed at teachers - in its own words, "to improve the training, status, standards and the workload of teachers as well as helping improve morale" - and is talking about the potential benefits of such a channel.
Not that this morale-boosting service will be beamed to teachers' homes by the DfES itself. Rather it has invited interested parties to submit proposals for a "Teachers' TV" channel that would receive funds from the government - and the chance of further income from advertising and sponsorship - but which would be "editorially independent".
As a department spokesperson put it, "teachers won't watch a Pravda channel - and it wouldn't get a licence under the Broadcasting Act anyway". But would it have enough "independence" to, say, question government educational policy? Perhaps not, given that (in the same spokesperson's words) "the department has educational objectives that the channel will be expected to deliver".
Still, by providing "direct access to resources, information and training", in the words of a DfES hand-out, the channel will meet a demand that research commissioned by the department has apparently shown to exist. So what, according to the research, do teachers - 50 per cent of whom, incidentally, are thought to have access to digital TV - want to see?
First, "better access" to existing BBC and Channel 4 schools programmes, and to other programmes with educational content that might need repackaging. Second, material that would help professional development would be welcome - "from tricks of the trade to accredited training courses". And third, "bigger picture" information: how to set about achieving specialist status for a school, for instance, or how they're integrating asylum seekers into mainstream education in Germany. As the DfES puts it: "In an increasingly diverse education system we need to create opportunities for teachers and schools to learn from each other."
According to the department, "a good range of bids" were submitted before the deadline last month, although it was unable to reveal who, or how many, the bidders were. BSkyB and The TES have submitted a joint bid, but other interested parties do not include the BBC nor, "after careful consideration", Channel 4. However, Karen Johnson, the BBC's commissioning editor for children's education, agrees that a channel for teachers has considerable potential: "Television's a good way to find out what's possible in the classroom. It can be fascinating to watch someone else teach, to see how it's possible to get an unruly class into shape. That's something you only find out by observing."
Potentially, the audience for the channel could be up to a million, not only teachers, but also governors or adult learners. (Compare this with the readership of The TES, which last year was not far below 600,000.) The DfES hopes to decide by September who is to run a pilot service which could be available in some parts of England before the end of the year.
(The channel is intended only for England initially, although the DfES says it is talking to the devolved administrations about the project. Wales, for one, has "no plans" to get involved.) So as the end of the autumn term looms, teachers turning on the television at the end of another hard day may find themselves watching, instead of their usual escapist fare, useful tips on how to keep a class of 13-year-olds amused on a wet Friday afternoon. As to whether or not this will improve their morale, further research may be needed.
John Davies Programme previews will return in September