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BBC’s lockdown educational programming is way better than the dull fare of yesteryear

Man with goatee in snake skin blazer points a pencil at a drawing of his face.
Designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen teaching an art class as part of the BBC’s lockdown education programming. BBC/Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

Schools are closed and parents face the dreaded task of homeschooling while juggling work and domestic responsibilities. Hoping to help, the BBC is airing several hours of educational programming each day throughout the lockdown for both primary and secondary school students.

As someone from the baby boomer generation, born in the mid-1960s, the BBC’s Schools programming was the only thing you could watch in the morning if you were off school sick. I remember it was pretty dull stuff, probably not helped by our small black and white rental TV set.

Education programming was a mainstay of the morning television schedule from the 1960s until the late 1980s when daytime TV as we understand it today began. Special broadcasts for schools began on BBC radio as early as 1924 and moved to television in 1957. Schools broadcasting was one of the few BBC programming departments, along with children’s, to have several senior female staff, at a time when women were under-represented across the broadcaster. Mary Somerville was the first director of schools broadcasting, appointed in 1929.

Why education programmes matter

The BBC’s current initiative to broadcast education programmes is a timely revival. Education is a pillar of the BBC’s public service remit to inform, educate and entertain, devised by Lord Reith, the first director general of the BBC. It is also a clever way of repurposing existing content in a manner that is both public spirited and economically expedient. The venture plays well politically at a time when the future of the BBC is under scrutiny, with discussions around the level of the licence fee underway.

Much of the schools content that will be broadcast on children’s channel CBBC and on BBC Two in the next few weeks was produced during the first lockdown last year by the BBC Bitesize team and was originally available online only – something the press releases around the initiative have failed to highlight.

Ironically, broadcasting the shows on the “old media” of TV is what is new. This choice is also democratic, however. There is a stark digital divide in this country, which the pandemic has exposed. An estimated 140,000 UK families with young children do not have a TV, while over a million children have no home access to a computer or tablet.

This is a win-win situation for the BBC, since far fewer children have no access to a terrestrial television than lack a good broadband connection or different devices that can access the internet at any one time. Meanwhile, the sensible scheduling of content with different time slots for each age group means there are no conflicting broadcasts.

Getting the lessons right

The key to successful educational programming is getting the tone right and making it fun. The BBC’s early experiments into schooling the nation did not always succeed because the overly academic content sometimes failed to engage children.

Programming for the current generation of both primary and secondary children has to be pitched in a way that makes it compete for their attention against the likes of social media and streamed content. Sampling some of the programmes, I was struck by the bright colours of the simple sets, which instantly (and cost-effectively) gave a feeling of positivity. This was combined with energetic, diverse, cheery presenters who were constantly enthusiastic, with a permanent smile on their faces no matter what the subject matter was.

There was singing and dancing to reinforce learning points, and lots of animations that were as colourful as the studio. Including actual teachers lent credibility, and inserts from well-known presenters and celebrities in their own homes reading stories or responding to challenges, added a touch of showbiz glamour. The Celebrity Supply Teacher slot at 10am was a highlight and will feature lockdown heroes like footballer Marcus Rashford giving a sports lesson or interior designer Laurence Llewelyn Bowen giving art lessons.

A woman in a unicorn onesie dancing while teaching maths.
A very colourful and lively maths lessons on the BBC’s Bitesize Daily. BBC/Youtube

What made the viewing experience particularly cohesive was the flow of the programmes, with the content carefully curated between the core and secondary lessons. For example, a history lesson covering ancient Egyptian pyramids referred to earlier discussions of three-dimensional shapes from the episode’s maths lesson.

It was well-produced, and while it might lack the high-tech graphics and fast-paced action of computer games, it was a lot more fun and interesting to watch than the schools programming of my youth.

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