Maggie Brown assesses the BBC’s ‘biggest educational push in its history’
In the week before lockdown began and schools were closed across the UK, the BBC’s Children’s and Education department realised it had a special duty in this national emergency.
“At that moment, we started to see stretching out before us what the BBC should do in terms of education during the pandemic. We set the ball rolling,” says Alice Webb, director of BBC Children’s and Education.
The Salford-based teams boldly gambled that most British youngsters could lose half a year of formal education. They would become reliant on makeshift home schooling and online contact with teachers and marking apps.
As a result, the department created a huge, 14-week programme for the summer term, which started on 20 April, hailed as “the BBC’s biggest push on education in its history”.
It’s an “all hands to the pump” operation, developing as it goes along, with rapidly expanding “lessons” and collaborators. For example, the arts initiative Ten Pieces from BBC Music, launched in 2014 to introduce children aged 7 to 14 to classical music, and championed by Director-General Tony Hall, has been revived as Ten Pieces at Home, while Radio 4 has created Homeschool History podcasts based on Horrible Histories.
Webb herself has put her career on hold, delaying a move to become CEO of the Universal Music subsidiary Eagle Rock Entertainment.
The BBC’s pandemic education initiative, announced on 3 April, is supported by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson (“I am delighted”), and culture secretary Oliver Dowden (“public service broadcasting at its best”).
“We’ve had many conversations with the DCMS, Department for Education and Ofcom, and the devolved education bodies in the nations. We have had huge backing and they are all very pleased with what we are able to offer,” says Webb.
Greg Childs, editorial director of the Children’s Media Conference, says: “It is absolutely what the BBC needs to do. I am highly conscious how hard it is for people to organise home schooling and jobs. The BBC has been given the space by the Government to deliver for the nation.”
The initiative is anchored on Bitesize, which began in 1998 for online revision in seven GCSE subjects. Then, only around one in 10 homes had internet access.
Bitesize has grown into one of the BBC’s most successful brands and now offers more than 35 subjects. During exam times, the service, which is continually updated by teachers, is used by upwards of 3 million learners.
It has long harnessed celebrities to add sparkle to its often brilliantly clear “lessons”: Professor Brian Cox, Gary Lineker and John Boyega have all taken part.
The BBC’s lockdown offer revolves around six new Bitesize Daily 20-minute live programmes tailored to six different age groups spanning five- to 14-year-olds, that outline what children should be learning that day. Teachers set tasks related to the curriculum – with variations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Children are signposted to BBC Bitesize online educational resources, lessons, quizzes, podcasts and videos.
The service is also extending its range up to 18. For example, for the over-16s, there is instruction on applying practical English and maths to problems such as checking a pay slip.
Familiar faces, such as dancer Oti Mabuse and children’s presenters Karim Zeroual, Oti Mabuse and Katie Thistleton, appear in Bitesize Daily, filmed in the Match of the Day studio in Salford. Content is available via BBC iPlayer, the red button, BBC Bitesize website and app, BBC Four and BBC Sounds.
Popular names on the expanded roster of teachers include Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s star striker (how to count in Spanish), Danny Dyer of EastEnders (on Henry VIII), and Doctor Who’s Jodie Whittaker. Sir David Attenborough is introducing natural history topics.
Webb declined to disclose the initiative’s cost but said: “We are flexing resources to meet needs in these difficult times.”
The BBC has a huge archive of existing children’s content, and its iPlayer Kids is a safe platform for young users.
Playing an interesting role is Twinkl, the Sheffield-based “quiet giant” of online teaching support material founded in 2010. Privately owned, Twinkl already works with CBBC and Children in Need and provides packages starting at £4.49 a month.
The company is opening its archive of 635,000 pieces of content for free and making new content available. Its teaching team, the majority of its 550-strong workforce, is making suggestions for Bitesize content. “We are very happy to take part,” says Mark Wilson, Twinkl’s head of strategic partnerships.
Another first-time contributor to the BBC initiative is Yorkshire-based White Rose Maths, which grew from a government-backed initiative to improve the standard of numeracy in schools.
The Premier League, Royal Shakespeare Company and Puffin Books are all providing external content.
Schools have welcomed the expansion of Bitesize. The headteacher of Northampton’s highly-rated Parklands primary school, Tracey Coles, says: “We are all really positive about how everyone is just leaping into action and trying to be supportive in these bizarre times, and pulling together to maintain children’s engagement with education.
“The BBC has an excellent reputation for quality and will have worked hard to ensure its offerings are useful and also fun”.
She points out that not all homes are equipped with computers or laptops, whereas everyone has access to a television: “It does provide an excellent solution for those homes which have internet problems, and it adds variety to the day.”
The service also includes daily podcasts for parents on BBC Sounds to give practical advice for the day’s home schooling.
Coles adds: “Parents are worried about ensuring children can progress in their education, so anything that supports them can only be a good thing. Parents will find it positive to have other places to access instant support and information.
“For educationalists, it is challenging finding the right balance for parents. Some want lots and lots of work, some less.”
Wilson, of Twinkl, has some down-to-earth advice for flummoxed parents: for a new topic of learning, allow one minute for each year of a child’s age – so six minutes for a six-year-old.
Laurie Jacques, an educational consultant in primary school maths, who was involved with the popular Numberblocks CBeebies series says: “Disadvantaged parents can’t afford printer cartridges to download vast numbers of work sheets. My fear is that the disruption [to schooling from the lockdown] results in a greater gap between those with supportive environments and those that haven’t got them.”
And she cautions: “Children are conditioned to classroom teaching – 30 kids to one adult. Will they know how to use Bitesize Daily? The idea of sitting down to something live or streamed is quite an alien concept.”
But Bitesize could become part of the daily routine. Wilson notes: “This is a huge amount of resources the BBC is providing to specifically meet the needs of school closure. We’ve never seen anything like this before and may never again see anything like it. It’s a success for us if parents have found it easier to support home learning and enjoy it.”
The lockdown world of physical withdrawal and school closures has caused isolation. There is a unanimous view that the BBC is demonstrating the importance of a national, universal public service broadcaster, without a commercial interest.
“This crisis makes you aware of the value of British institutions, the NHS and the BBC,” says Jacques.
Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4, puts it this way: “It is uniquely placed. Name me one organisation that is available at a touch of a button in 26 million homes.” He thinks that Bitesize Daily could be so popular that it may be hard to discontinue.
And, Greg Childs adds, by harnessing celebrity power and introducing elements of entertainment and fun, “the upside to the whole thing is that education just gets a bit more exciting”.