Saul Nassé, Controller of Learning

Date: 26.06.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.04

Speech given at the Wellington Festival of Education
Sunday 26 June 2011

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It's great to be here at the Wellington Festival of Education – it's felt a bit like a Glastonbury of Learning.

I'm pleased to say Wellington has some BBCish alumni – Rory Bremner, Robin Oakley (the former BBC political correspondent) and Peter Snow, the king of the swingometer, and the man I chose to present Tomorrow's World when I was editor. You could have no better advertisement for the school – Peter's the brainiest, kindest, most energetic person I know. Before Michael Gove has a go, I should point out most of the presenters I've worked with come from state schools!

Wellington is constantly innovating and introducing new educational initiatives. Wellington was one of the first schools to teach happiness and positive psychology in timetabled lessons and the principle that learning should be enjoyable is an approach we share at the BBC.

But there are those that say proper education comes with a bit of pain and that injecting a note of fun into learning, which we try to do, is selling out – maybe even dumbing down.

I reckon it's that thinking that's got us where we are today – where our audience research tells us that many people think education is a waste of time, irrelevant, or too much like hard work. People associate it with pain and difficulty as opposed to pleasure.

I read research like that and find it terribly sad that such attitudes prevail in the UK. I spent half the last decade living in India – producing a Bollywood version of Strictly Come Dancing amongst other things.

In India there is a passion for education. It's seen as a passport out of poverty. There's a great appetite for learning, the culture is very supportive of learning and it's seen as an aspiration worthy of respect. I believe the UK would be a much better place if we had a similar culture of learning.

And we at the BBC have a role to play in promoting this cultural change. I'd like the BBC to challenge the attitude that learning is painful, difficult and not worth it – to shift perceptions and create a culture of curiosity and passion for learning by showing how it can be pleasurable and fun.

That's why last year I launched the new strategy for BBC Learning – we want to inspire a life full of learning for all our audiences. We want to make programmes that motivate children and adults to do things. We want to give them a passion for subjects which will shape the rest of their lives.

I hope that most of us can remember a series or programme which fired our interest in a particular issue or subject. As a child of seven I was inspired by Tomorrow's World.

Raymond Baxter told stories and did experiments that made me want to study science at school and take a degree in metallurgy. I broke off my PhD to join the Science Department and in 1997 I came full circle when I took over as editor of Tomorrow's World.

In the same way that I was inspired by television as a young boy, I want to inspire a new generation by commissioning programmes that do the same.

I want to use the power of BBC programmes that are known and loved by audiences as a springboard for learning. This means unlocking the learning potential that exists across the BBC – whether on TV, Radio or Online, in News, Sport and Drama I want learning to be a pleasurable experience for audiences of all ages. I want children to enjoy learning Shakespeare through the BBC as part of their GCSE courses. I want adults to watch Wonders Of The Universe and think "how can I find out more about science". A balance between pleasure and learning.

One fantastic recent example of this was Stargazing Live on BBC Two. Hosted by Professor Brian Cox and the comedian Dara O'Briain the show provided an introduction to astronomy for audiences across the UK

And it was a great success. 3.5m people tuned in to learn about the night sky. The BBC worked with partners across the UK to host 330 stargazing events where 50,000 people got hands-on with astronomy. Over a million people downloaded our online resources. People wrote to us saying "my two grown-up sons now want to become astronauts", "Brian Cox is a great example to any teacher and he should be shown in Physics lessons".

And the best statistic of all: John Lewis sold out of telescopes.

This suggests that we can motivate a new generation to go out and take an interest in the world around them. People enjoyed watching the series and looked up into the heavens and made an effort to work out which star was where. It's an example of how compelling television can be enjoyable, inspiring and instructive.

But I believe that the right balance between pleasure and learning is crucial. Happiness cannot be an end in itself in education.

When I was researching this speech I came across an article on education in Norway. Norway has an excellent education system with lots of contented children in their early years. And yet schools are experiencing problems with their older pupils.

I'd like to show you a short film that provides an insight into the approach that the Norwegians take to happiness and education.

Young people record astonishing levels of contentedness in Norway – only 23% dislike school. And yet despite this educational system, Norway doesn't seem to be turning out international role models or outstanding cultural achievements. And the education minister you saw in the film recognises that, and is working to change the Norwegian system.

But the Norwegians do have a different attitude to individuality. The Scandinavians call it the Jante Law, which sees anybody who stands out from the crowd as worthy of suspicion and hostility.

It contrasts very much with our "individualistic" culture which is more comfortable with challenging authority and raising your head above the parapet – a kind of "tall poppy syndrome".

So while I set my teams the challenge of making our programmes intensely pleasurable, the fun can never be an end in itself. We've got to be darn sure we get some proper learning results.

One of our recent initiatives is a Doctor Who competition where we've made materials available to help primary schools pupils to write a mini-episode of Doctor Who.

There are certain rules – they've got to feature the Doctor, a monster, a brand new character and the scripts have got to be three minutes long. The competition closed last week and the winner will have their script filmed with the cast including the doctor, Matt Smith, and broadcast on BBC Three.

I'd like to show you a short film about the project.

I'm particularly pleased with this project because it's using the power of the biggest show on the block to inspire children to do something really difficult – write a script that's good enough to be on television. I judged the competition with Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's chief writer, on Thursday, and the scripts were all brilliant. The dialogue in particular was fantastic. I think if we'd come over all Norwegian the writing of the 1,000 scripts that were written would have been the end in itself. But I'm pleased we made it a competition – pleased that children knew there would be just one winner, and that for them, the prize of having their work on TV was amazing and motivating. And to win, they would need to be the tallest of tall poppies.

We do know that watching television doesn't demand the same concentration as sitting in a lesson where you might be asked a question at any time, but the power of the internet means that we can create interactive online resources that are pleasurable but really challenging.

Our online revision site Bitesize has proved this. It reinforces what children have already been taught in the classroom and adds imagination and fun to rote revision

In secondary schools around three quarters use Bitesize with, not surprisingly, a peak in users in April and May. It covers curriculum-based subjects in Bitesize chunks using text, games and short-form films.

We cover the Cuban Missile Crisis in a video lasting 2 minutes 29 seconds, the collapse of Communism in 1 minute 59 seconds and the long-term causes of World War I in 1 minute 27 seconds. Let me show you what I mean.

And once a student has seen the clips, they're tested on the content, so they know how well they're doing.

My favourite remark is from a pupil describing why Bitesize beats traditional revision techniques: "Let's be honest, revision's deadly. It's like having your wisdom teeth taken out again and again! Bitesize means you can get on with it on your own, and not have your mates take the mick out of you when you get it wrong."

Some might say we're promoting and sustaining what a previous generation might have called Coles Notes style cramming, but our main focus is very much on children and young people themselves.

We're addressing them directly. Resources like the internet give children the scope to develop their skills, aptitude and imagination in ways they never have done before.

We're using the net again for our Off By Heart project, a new recital competition for students aged 13-15 that we are working on in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Schools can nominate up to three students to appear in a regional heat where they will perform a famous Shakespearian speech from memory. Eight finalists will then be selected for a BBC Two programme.

Students in the classroom will also be able to access online, films of the various speeches performed by celebrities such as Helen Mirren, Katy Brand and David Tennant. It's a way of teaching children about Shakespeare that is exciting and relevant to young people and yet still relates very strongly to the curriculum.

We're also working much more closely with our colleagues across the BBC. Last Monday, the Learning Department and I moved to MediaCityUK in Salford to the BBC's new northern base, now joining other departments such as Children's, Sport and, from 2012, BBC Breakfast. This is a great opportunity to work more collaboratively on inspiring content.

Today I am delighted to announce we're launching a brand new language learning series for pre-schoolers called The Lingo Show. It's been co-commissioned by BBC Learning and CBeebies. The Lingo Show began life as a CBeebies website in February and has been a real hit. Once it's on the CBeebies channel, the focus will stay the same – teaching children words in different languages and allowing them to experience the sights and sounds of other countries and cultures.

It will retain all the website characters with leader, Lingo, and his excitable troupe of multi-talented bugs travelling around the world and choosing everyday objects to include in the big finale – the Big Bug Show. Each episode will focus on one language, teaching children around 10 words, including everyday ones like "hello" and "thank you" and will very much follow the educational practice for how preschoolers learn new words. We're saying that even pre-schoolers can be inspired to take on a challenging task like learning a new language. Again, it's great fun, with real learning outcomes.

I think the very best teachers do just that – make learning exciting, challenging and fun. To me it's the least controversial notion in the world. What's controversial is thinking that people should know it's important to study, however boring or painful it is. That's why I read those depressing research reports that tell me I should pretend our programmes aren't educational. What's controversial is thinking that happiness and pleasure are an end itself – then you're heading to Norway.

What I aspire to do at the BBC are programmes and content that truly inspire people to learn. My goal is that one day every person in Britain will believe that education is part of their life, and that their life is richer because of it. And I'd like them to think that the BBC is a big part of their life full of learning.