Learning and the BBC
Why does the BBC, a broadcaster, involve itself in education? It's worth asking this question firstly because the answer isn’t entirely obvious, and secondly because for those who need to market their product in the education sector, the presence of the publicly-funded BBC is controversial, to say the least.
The answer is partly to do with history. The BBC was of course set up to educate as well as to inform and entertain, and from its early years in the mid 1920s the BBC sought a special relationship with teachers and students. The first schools broadcasts were transformational. They used the new medium to broaden the curriculum with subjects like music, dance, and modern languages which had hitherto been beyond the reach of many schools; and to enrich it with new ways of teaching English literature, social and economic history, geography and biology, bringing a whole new world of knowledge, experience and imagination into the classroom. And this was not just one-way broadcasting. Presenters addressed the children directly as if they were in the room with them, and the children talked or sang back to the loudspeaker. Programmes were supplemented with illustrated workbooks, and teachers were asked to feedback on how these broadcast-enhanced lessons went, and to send samples of children’s work back to the BBC. The Schools Broadcasts manual spoke of a collaboration between the classroom teacher and their wireless colleague. This was interactive radio 50 years before the internet.
The BBC has been deeply involved in the educational life of school students and their teachers ever since, shifting its main delivery platform for formal learning first onto TV in the 1950s and 60s, and then at the beginning of this century, online. Once schools and students had ready access to it, the web brought huge advances in flexibility, interactivity and pedagogical potency. It also made it possible to deliver learning experiences not only through teachers in classrooms, but also directly to students both inside and outside of school: cue Bitesize. Fundamentally, however, the new platform was simply a continuation of the same educative mission by other means. The BBC, then, has been in this space for the best part of a century.
It’s not just history though. There’s an underlying philosophical argument for the BBC’s educator role, which has to do with the social purpose of education - its function as an engine not just of individual betterment but of a wider social and economic wellbeing. Education is about enlightening and enriching individual lives, but it’s also about enlightening and enriching us all, which is why most societies on earth invest so heavily in it. Education is about building up not monetary but social capital, and it’s simply too important to be left up to market forces alone to provide. As with those early wireless broadcasts, the BBC provides online learning services like Bitesize and Class Clips purely in order to help young people to learn and their teachers to teach: there is no other bottom line. The support of learning and teaching is one of the corporation’s six core public purposes - the reasons why Parliament approves the licence fee and why the public on the whole willingly pay it. It’s part of why we have a BBC.
Teachers in particular understand this. Levels of approval of how the BBC spends the licence-fee are 17% higher among UK teachers than among the public at large. That’s because nearly 80% of teachers regularly use BBC content in their lessons, making well over half a million weekly visits to the BBC’s teacher-facing websites. Reach of the BBC's direct-to-the-student sites is similarly deep: over 70% of all secondary students use one of the Bitesize websites, making around a million weekly visits. Usage levels like this deliver extremely good value-for-money to the licence-fee payer.
Of course there’s room for a mixed economy of providers and distributors of educational content, and of course competition can be a good thing, driving innovation and efficiency. But education is a fundamentally collective endeavour and teachers are first and foremost public service professionals rather than consumers of educational product. The publicly-funded BBC is among other things a communal repository of our shared hopes for a next generation that is more highly-skilled, better educated and more fulfilled than the last. The BBC has not only a proud record as an educator, but a rightful and proper place in the educational landscape.
John Millner is Learning Executive for 5-19 Learning