Eastenders: E20 - Changing opinions and lives through drama

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Drama in the curriculum

About a year ago my Controller Saul Nassé invited me to meet with him and Deborah Sathe, the Producer of EastEnders' teen spin-off - E20, with a view to having BBC Learning commission the next series...The approach really fitted with our new Learning strategy which is to work alongside big BBC brands and talent... But before I signed up, I wanted to run a 'health check' with a couple of secondary schools and see if the idea of combining a top BBC drama with the Personal Social and Health education curriculum - would really stack up.

PSHE is taught in all secondary schools, but a difficult subject for teachers to deliver. It usually falls to the form teacher, and involves all the contentious teen topics - sex education, drug and alcohol abuse, crime (well, that's more citizenship - generally also covered by the same teacher), as well as self esteem, identity and financial capability. Some of these topics are natural territory for a soap like EastEnders, and drama is in fact the perfect medium for this kind of subject: it allows pupils to distance themselves and talk in the third person about quite difficult and personal themes.

Going to school

I took the idea into schools, and canvassed teacher/student opinion: the teens I spoke to were already watching E20 and were delighted about the opportunity of being able to view it in school! - They were already aware of the kinds of issues being raised by the drama, in series 1 and 2 - teen pregnancy, cultural identity, relationships, friendships, surviving without adults; they were already having 'water-cooler' conversations in the playground - why not in the classroom, with a teacher involved in the debate too?

BBC Learning has made some fantastic TV dramas over the past 30 years - specifically to support PSHE in fact, long before it was even called that. Both 'Loved Up' in the Nineties, (within the multi-award winning 'Scene' strand, and which was notable at the time for being the first collaboration between BBC Drama and BBC Education - as we were then), and Melvin Burgess' 'Junk' (amongst many other strong Scene dramas) - have been much praised and used by teachers and pupils alike for addressing contentious teen issues - ecstasy-use and heroin addiction respectively.

No goggle-boxing

For E20, delivering the drama online, allows for short-form episodic story-telling, with the 'teacher wraparound' instantly available: for E20 we're providing factual background documents: key questions to stimulate debate in class, character monologues, where individual characters talk directly to camera about a specific issue or decision, allowing the audience to understand their point-of-view, and debate its moral position etc. - with all teaching content tagged to the relevant education curriculum (UK wide)- so that teachers are confident about what they're teaching and how they're covering curriculum requirements- you don't want to be accused of goggle-boxing! Or copping out...

So E20 actually continues a strong tradition of learning through drama... But what is totally new and innovative about this latest collaboration is that it's written by young people, aged from 16 to 22 and what's more - teens who've never written for TV before. Quite a high risk strategy, but one that has paid off in terms of the freshness of the dialogue and credibility of the teen characters that they've created. The sexual relationships theme, which runs through the heart of Series 3, is also very current - it coincidentally ties in with a recently launched Government campaign aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence and abuse within teen relationships.

The best video can change opinions, and lives: I hope teachers and students will come in their millions to view and to debate E20.

Sarah Miller is Executive Producer for BBC Learning

  • Series three of EastEnders: E20 launches this week. Episodes are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on the E20 website, with an omnibus on BBC Three on Fridays at 8.30pm.
  • Teachers can visit the BBC Learning PSHE and Citizenship website for EastEnders: E20 teaching resources. These resources will be updated weekly, as the series is broadcast.
  • The picture shows the latest additions to the Albert Square spin-off: Ava (Sophie Colquhoun), Donnie (Samuell Benta) and Faith (Modupe Adeyeye).
  • Himesh Patel plays Tamwar Masood in EastEnders and is a writer for E20. Read his blog post on the BBC TV blog.

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