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They think it's all over...

Well, it isn't. It's going on and on. Both BBC2 and Channel 4 are now broadcasting right through the night. George Cole and Aleks Sierz stay up into the small hours to find out what's worth watching when the rest of us have switched off.

Where can you find out how to deal with medical emergencies at school, or run a small business, or discover what life is like for a woman poet? And where can you learn about foreign languages, or how portable computers can help pupils' work? Or learn about modern life and Islam, or study for a degree, or a GNVQ? All this and more, is available on the Learning Zone, one of the BBC's most recent successes.

Launched in October 1995, the Learning Zone transmits more than 30 hours of education and training programmes each week. Its target audience is eclectic: parents, teachers, governors, and students of all ages.

The Learning Zone is broadcast most nights on BBC2 between 12.30am and 7.15am. Not surprisingly, most people record the programmes on their VCR for viewing at a more convenient time. Despite broadcasting when most of us are tucked up in bed, it attracts an audience of around 1 million (including viewers who record programmes).

The Learning Zone's editor, Catherine McCarthy, says: "We had set up the Learning Zone as an educational and training service for teachers and trainers, but the response we got was amazing." Around 70,000 phone calls were received following the first promotional campaign, many of them from outside the target audience and, as a result, the service was adjusted. For example, one of the latest arrivals, Business and Work, is a series of programmes aimed at people who are running small businesses or are interested in people management.

The Summer Nights programme, launched last June, gave adult learners the opportunity to follow courses on subjects such as the arts, music, and history. Some programmes were even accredited. Viewers could get study materials from the University of Middlesex, carry out research and complete a piece of written work. This could be used as a credit towards a university course.

Educational institutions are making more use of the Learning Zone. One survey found that 66 per cent of further education colleges used programmes. Another found that, over two months, six out of 10 secondary schools had recorded programmes: "We offer schools a collection of materials, a package of research materials that cover a subject well," says McCarthy. "One big advantage we have is that we can be flexible: if we want to transmit a two-hour programme, we can. If we need to cover a subject over a whole week, it's no problem."

That flexibility will be demonstrated over the coming year, says McCarthy. "In a sense 1997 will be a relaunch," she says. "We aim to offer a more simplified schedule that makes it even easier to find what people want." Plans for the year include developing a Web site; a three-week language series at Easter, aimed at a variety of learners, including young people, holiday makers, and business travellers; a French theatre season; the film education course, Shooting Shakespeare; a tie-up with a BBC numeracy campaign; a two-week science season aimed at secondary schools; and a week devoted to special needs.

In a broadcasting world where ratings and commercial success dictate so much of what we see on our screens, initiatives such as the Learning Zone are a welcome change. The BBC's recent publication of "250 promises to the British public" includes a reference to the Learning Zone and its importance in the corporation's plans. This is one promise the BBC should not be allowed to break.

george cole BBC Education Information Line 0181 746 1111

The Learning Zone

FETV is for further education students and staff. Includes programmes for GNVQ and GSVQ

NSTV NightSchool TV for schools. Includes Inset for teachers and governors

BBC Focus is for people learning at school or college. Includes programmes made by the National Council for Educational Technology

Open University is for OU students and general interest

Business and work covers small business and management

Languages' current season includes Spanish, German and Gaelic

Believing covers a range of issues on belief and faith.

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