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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 18:27 GMT


Let that be a lesson to you all

Teacher's pets: Blue Peter maintains an educational role

Long before BBC's education website, when Blue Peter was a glint in the eye and the Open University had yet to open, came John Reith.

A stern Scottish Presbyterian, Reith, later made a lord, was always assured a place in broadcasting history, as the BBC's first director general.

But his legacy is much more than this.

More than 75 years after he joined the BBC, initially with the humble title of general manager, the term "Reithian values" has become a byword for public service broadcasting.

[ image: Lord Reith: Strong believer in the BBC's role as an educator]
Lord Reith: Strong believer in the BBC's role as an educator
When Reith's latest successor, Greg Dyke, talks of shifting the BBC's emphasis back to education - as he did on Thursday - it is the original director general he is paying homage to.

When the BBC launched in 1922, it did so under Reith's remit to "educate, inform and entertain".

In a bleak and bankrupt post Great War Britain, education was viewed by many as one of the main instruments for hope and progress.

HG Wells wrote in 1920: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Many argue that the education aspect has suffered of late from the BBC's efforts to compete with the plethora of commercial broadcasters on television, radio and, latterly, the internet.

[ image:  ]
Granted, if it's mammoth audience numbers you are looking for, education is probably not the best overall bet.

But the BBC has made a huge impact on the teaching of children and adults through the years.

Almost from the start, education was established as a core BBC department, alongside music and drama.

Reith and his appointed education director, John Stobart, set about convincing the educational establishment of the value of broadcasting.

It was an uphill battle, not least because in the early 1920s the public was highly sceptical about the benefits of radio.

Nevertheless, in 1923 the BBC began broadcasting serious talks - topics included music, archaeology, astronomy and foreign languages - to groups of adults, and a year later came the first schools broadcast.

[ image: Schools programmes: The countdown clock]
Schools programmes: The countdown clock
The government also jumped on the bandwagon, delivering lectures on subjects such as health and international affairs, although these were often a turn off for audiences.

By 1929, as the number of radio licences neared 3.5 million, schools broadcasts and talks accounted for a total weekly output of about 80 hours.

Education programming was an accepted and popular part of listening pleasure.

The BBC also looked beyond the airwaves in its mission to educate the masses.

Pamphlets were distributed, space was given over in the Radio Times and, in 1929, The Listener magazine was launched with the intent of supporting education programmes.

[ image:  ]
Television was launched in 1936 but suspended for the war. It took another 20 years for schools programming to hit the screens, doing so in 1957.

The idea was always going to be a success - after all how many children would turn down the offer of watching TV on school time?

Programmes such as Scene, a documentary drama dealing with social issues, and Merry-go-Round, a sex education series for young children, proved the Beeb was willing to take risks.

Children's programmes such as Blue Peter and Play School were also a powerful reinforcement of Reithian values. Even dramas such as Dr Who had an underlying educational context.

Adults too were catered for. John Stobart's 1924 vision of a "wireless university" came to fruition in 1970, with the launch of the Open University.

[ image: Johnny Ball's Think of a Number: Maths lessons made fun]
Johnny Ball's Think of a Number: Maths lessons made fun
The premise was simple but effective: adults too busy to attend normal lectures could study for a degree at home, learning from special television programmes.

Another big leap came in 1982, on the back of the emerging craze for personal computers. The BBC saw the educational value and launched its Computer Literacy Project.

This in turn spawned publications and the BBC Micro, an affordable computer which was the starting block for many of today's highly-paid programmers

In the 1990s, there was another hi-tech trend to get on the back of - the internet.

The BBC's education site ranks among the most popular in Britain. A study by Durham University found students who used the site's GCSE Bitsesize revision service did significantly better than they might have done without it.

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