Saul Nassé, Controller of Learning

Date: 06.01.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.51

Inspiring children and young people to learn
Speech given to the NEEC
Thursday 6 January 2011

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I'm delighted to be here today and to play a part in a conference that looks at the challenges facing young people. You may have guessed from the title of my talk – inspiring children and young people to learn – that I take a very positive view of those challenges and of what can be achieved.

I'm not, in fact, the first person from the BBC to address a North of England Education Conference in Blackpool. One of our former directors of programmes, a man called Arthur Burrows, came here to demonstrate an entirely new concept in education – wireless for schools. That was on 3 January 1924. The BBC was in its infancy, of course, but John Reith and his colleagues had, to their credit, realised the potential of broadcasting as an education resource.

Sadly, the actual demonstration at the conference in the Winter Gardens was not an unqualified success. According to our archives 'the receiving apparatus was installed above the generating station for the Winter Gardens. It sent out a hopeless ripple of audible frequency.'

I hope I can offer you more than a hopeless ripple today!

It did take a while for schools broadcasting to take off. Signals in those early days were weak or even non-existent, receivers were unreliable and badly tuned and loudspeakers of the quality needed for classroom listening were simply not available. And there was suspicion about a dubious activity which some regarded as a threat to teachers' autonomy.

But it did take off. And we've come quite a long way since then – through the advent of schools television in the Fifties, the BBC Micro in the Eighties, online in the Nineties and now video on demand and mobile technology. Today, the overwhelming majority of schools make use of BBC services in one form or another – broadcast or, increasingly, online.

What the BBC began to do back in 1924 was to open up to children new windows on the world. The aim was to extend young people's experience beyond the classroom, to fire their imaginations and to provide teachers with new tools to make young people want to learn.

That's what we've tried to do ever since. The Reithian trinity 'inform, educate, entertain' remains as strong as ever and our obligation – spelt out in the current BBC Charter and Agreement – is to stimulate interest in and knowledge of a full range of subjects and issues and to provide specialist educational content.

To me, the key to what the BBC does best in the world of education is in that first line: 'to stimulate interest in.' Though I'd give it another word - inspire.

I'm actually standing in front of you today because – as a child of seven – I was inspired by Tomorrow's World. I sat down to see Raymond Baxter tell amazing stories and do incredible experiments and it made me want to study science at school and, eventually, take a degree in materials science. I broke off my PhD to join the BBC's science department and, in 1997, I came full circle when I took over as editor of Tomorrow's World.

So, the BBC set me off on a journey of discovery that really has shaped my whole life. And there are tens of thousands of people all over the country with similar stories – of how, when they were young, particular programmes sparked their curiosity, inspired a lifelong passion, helped them develop skills or kindled an ambition.

We tracked down a few of them and here's what they had to say.


Many of the people in that film have, of course, gone on themselves to use the power of television to inspire others to learn. Bettany Hughes told me recently about the scores of emails she's received from people saying how her programmes have excited them about history and sometimes even persuaded them to do a history degree. A virtuous circle.

The thing is, I would like everyone in Britain to have a story like that – about how the BBC enriched their lives. So, the vision I've set for the BBC since becoming controller of learning a year ago is to inspire a life full of learning for all our audiences.

Some challenge, I know. But I want us to do that by unlocking the potential for learning that exists across the range of BBC output – from news to arts, history to sport, drama to science. I want to use the power of broadcast – of BBC programmes that are known and loved by people – to serve as a springboard for learning. And I want to take advantage of the revolution in technology that is bringing radio, television and the internet ever closer together.

The BBC's specialist learning department which I head is therefore working with colleagues across the BBC – commissioners and producers – to maximise the opportunities for learning. We want to make our material easier for audiences to find and use and, through working with partners, we want to help people discover opportunities for learning beyond the BBC.

There's been a great example of this happening on BBC Two this week, with our fantastic series Stargazing Live, presented by Professor Brian Cox, the Raymond Baxter of today – without the Spitfire! Stargazing has been all about inspiring audiences to look up and learn about the skies and it's been a great success, with 3.5m people watching on BBC Two.

But there's more besides – during this month our partners have organised over 330 Stargazing events across the UK including planetarium shows, star parties and night walks – so around 50,000 people will have got the chance to get hands on with astronomy. And anyone can get a Star Guide with its own compass so you can stargaze in the comfort of your own garden. And amateur astronomers have already sent in 2,000 of their own images. It's a scintillating example of what we're trying to do – inspire a life full of learning for all our audiences.

But today I want to look, in particular, at how we do inspire a life full of learning for children and young people especially. If we can build a learning relationship between the BBC and a child that can last a lifetime, we – and they – will be going great guns.

And I'd like to talk first about something that is already part of the life of nearly all young people.

BBC Bitesize

It started over a decade ago as a resource – TV and online – for teenagers revising for their GCSEs. Since then, it's evolved to offer support for coursework, testing and recapping and it now goes down the age range to key stage one. It combines audio, video, animation, text, tests and tips. In secondary schools, about three-quarters of students overall use Bitesize with not, surprisingly, a peak in April and May.

And they do seem to rely on it. My favourite remark is from a student in one of our focus groups. I quote: 'Let's be honest, revision's deadly. It's like having your wisdom teeth taken out again and again. With Bitesize you get it over quickly in little sections and the tests show how well you're doing without having the p*ss taken out of you by your mates!'

Well put! The aim of Bitesize is not to teach but to reinforce what children have already been taught in class. It's designed to appeal to the young people themselves and its idiom is ironic, playful, subversive even. Let me play you an example – a short video clip created to reinforce GCSE geography students' understanding of how river landscapes are formed.


As I say, we're not designing material here for teachers. This is explicitly for 15-year-olds. In fact, we have had occasional complaints from teachers who don't think the language or the tone is appropriate to educational content.

But, for me, the tone is exactly right – it's what young people are used to seeing on BBC Three or Channel 4, and that's what makes it feel real.

Before I leave Bitesize I'd like to mention one recent addition. We've moved over to Bitesize the creative writing community that was previously part of BBC Blast. In case you don't know, Blast was a wonderful project which toured the country encouraging teenagers to try out a range of creative skills. Sadly, it's ending – in these days of belt-tightening, it didn't really reach enough young people to warrant the very high costs. But it's not ending without our ensuring a safe home for some of its best achievements. The creative writing site is one such. It allows young people to offer a critique of each other's work and to pass on tips and advice – all within a safe environment and within the context of learning.

One thing that that Bitesize demonstrates, of course, is the educational use that new technology can be put to. There is, in fact, research evidence that interactive online resources can increase students' confidence and motivation; that they can offer particular support to those with learning difficulties; that sites such as Bitesize can become key contact points for young people not in education, employment or training; and that they have a particular impact on boys, on children eligible for free school meals and those for whom English is a second language.

I mention research findings with some trepidation in front of an audience such as this. I know research can be inconclusive and sometimes contradictory. But they're interesting findings, and we plan to commission further academic research on the impact of interactive media on learning.

But, at the same time, the power of the moving image and the human voice and the pull of long-form narrative – story-telling – whether drama or documentary, remain a superb force in reaching a broader audience and lighting the first spark.

One of the areas where I think the BBC can play a particularly effective role through storytelling is in supporting personal, social and health education. There's nothing new about this – we first introduced sex education programmes for primary schools in 1970 and controversial they proved, too.

If anything, the demands placed on young people have grown exponentially since then, and with it the curriculum has broadened. The great news for us as a broadcaster is that the topics that teachers need to cover are perfect territory for dramatic storytelling that can engage an entire classroom.

I talked earlier about unlocking the potential for learning that exists across the range of BBC output and about using the best known programmes to serve as a springboard for learning. Well that's exactly what we're doing for PSHE. BBC Learning are collaborating with the biggest show on the block – EastEnders. We're using EastEnders' hugely popular online spin-off, E20, to bring the PSHE curriculum to life, working closely both with colleagues in drama – and with external education consultants. But what makes this special is that E20 is both aimed at and written by young people themselves.

Watch this.


And you'll be able to see the results when this goes live on E20 next autumn.

At this point, you may think that I haven't really had much to say about what we offer teachers nowadays. And yes, in a way you'd be right. This is one of the ways in which our approach has shifted a great deal from what it was in the Twenties and even much more recently. Our main focus – whether through Bitesize or E20 – is now very much on children and young people themselves. They are our audience. We're addressing them directly.

But, to the teachers in the room, let me assure you that we haven't given up on you far from it. We see ourselves as working in partnership with you to support young people's learning – inside and outside the classroom. We maintain a regular dialogue with teachers – please do sign up for our monthly newsletter, if you haven't already. And we want teachers to spread the word about what we offer their students.

We have a portal specially for teachers – just as we have one for parents – where you can find a whole host of ideas and resources for the classroom. This includes our growing databank of Class Clips – clips from broadcast programmes, both those made specifically for schools and first shown in the overnight Learning Zone on BBC Two, and those from general programmes across the channels – whether that's Horizon, Top Gear or, indeed, E20, our Eastenders spin-off. And all of them tagged to the school curriculum.

Up to now we've been able to offer this content only for streaming from the web. But teachers tell us that they would like greater flexibility in the way they can use our material. So, I can tell you today that we're starting to make many of our Class Clips available for you to embed in your own work to use with your students as you wish. And, in due course, you will also be able to download Class Clips for use independently of the web. All that we will do is provide the content. It's up to you how you use it and what extra you bring to it.

Some of you may have got to the conference workshop that my colleagues were running this morning on the theme of 'the BBC in your Classroom'. But if you missed it, you can still find out more about Class Clips – and indeed all the rest of the free content from the BBC – on the BBC stand in the conference exhibition.

One of the things we know that teachers do appreciate from the BBC is our news and current affairs content. It goes without saying that the BBC is one of the biggest and most highly regarded news providers in the world – and we want to make sure that schools take advantage of that, whether for lessons in citizenship, geography, history, science, PSHE, media studies – or for assemblies.

Many teachers have discovered the content from news that's already linked to Class Clips. And hundreds of schools take part each year in BBC News' School Report, which helps 11 to- 14-year-old students develop their own journalistic skills and produce their own news reports. The BBC provides support and mentoring for this, culminating in School Report News Day in March with coverage across BBC News.

But we want to go further in bringing news into the classroom. So I'd like to announce today the launch of News for Schools. This is a joint enterprise from BBC News and BBC Learning. It's a directory within the teachers' portal which will bring together topical content from across news and sport – mapped to the school curriculum.

It'll offer assembly packs highlighting events like the Olympics, topical news stories organised according to curriculum subject and current affairs with ethical dimensions. There are also news podcasts and video clips from BBC News and the iPlayer. You can find it at And, of course, it'll be different every day.

Let me say, as I draw to a close, that I know what we do in the BBC shouldn't be there to resolve every challenge facing every young person – and, of course, we couldn't if we tried. But we can provide entertaining, informative and, most of all, educational material that can help them and you.

I hope that means too – unlike some of those working in education in the Twenties – you don't feel that we want to usurp the role of the teacher. We are here merely to support teachers – with resources, ideas, inspiration.

More importantly, we are here to reach children outside the classroom, to help open their minds and extend their experience in ways that will make them more ready for learning when they are in the classroom. And to help equip them with the skills and knowledge they need not just for school and exams – but beyond that for the world of work and grown-up life. It's a big ambition, but it's what I believe our audiences have a right to demand of us.

I've left perhaps the most important thing to say until last – but here it is. BBC Learning is coming north. This year I and my department are moving from west London to the MediaCity UK at Salford Quays. We'll be joining several other BBC departments – including Children's, Sport and Future Media & Technology – in what we see as an exciting new beginning. Our digital learning centre, 21CC, which runs workshops for school and community groups, was the advance guard &ndash it moved nearly two years ago. And the rest of us will be arriving over the coming months – in fact, I'm off house-hunting at the weekend!

But this is not just a matter of new addresses. Our move to Salford will allow us to develop new ways of working and, above all, new relationships with schools, colleges and community organisations across the north. We've already been involved in local projects in for example Greater Manchester, Darlington and Cumbria, on Humberside and Merseyside. And there will be more to come.

BBC Learning will still have a nationwide remit. We won't be giving up on the south! But we will in future be more firmly rooted here in the north. I hope that means we'll get to know more of you and your organisations and discover ways that we can work together.

I hope, too, that we'll become something of a permanent fixture at the North of England Education Conference – which I'm sure my predecessor, Arthur Burrows, would have been delighted to know, despite Blackpool having seen his brave new world of wireless education disappear in a ripple of interference!