Podium: The BBC's mission to educate the nation

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The Independent Culture
Greg Dyke

From the Spectator lecture delivered by the BBC's director general designate at the Insurance Hall, London

I THINK it appropriate that my first speech as a BBC employee should be the Spectator lecture, because in the mass of articles written about my appointment my favourite was one in that eminent publication. It was written by Peregrine Worsthorne. His argument was that jobs such as that of director general of the BBC should not be allocated on merit but given to people, and I quote, "with blue blood and noble quarterings" and, if not, to people with "the right old school tie and a good Oxbridge degree in Greats".

Clearly, I don't belong in either category and, as a result, Mr Worsthorne argued that my appointment meant it was time for elitists to unite and to stop "the cultural slide which is turning Britain into a society comfortable only for morons to live in". It's good to feel so welcome.

I don't believe that it has ever been the purpose of the BBC to satisfy only the demands of a small, self-appointed intellectual and cultural elite. The BBC must be there for all.

Nearly 70 years ago Lord Reith defined the purpose of the BBC as "to inform, to entertain and to educate". I should like to talk about the BBC's role as an educator.

Education is now seen as the most critical lever in shaping the prosperity of individuals, companies and the UK as a whole.

International comparisons show Britain performing well in delivering high-level qualifications, but only to a minority. They show a disproportionate majority with poor qualifications The challenge is to open up the provision of learning. So how do we do it?

We all know that because of the digital revolution the landscape is changing. But it's too easy to see digital simply as a mere proliferation of channels. The really significant aspect is interactivity.

Imagine a child at a desk with a laptop. Imagine at the click of a mouse a wealth of video, sound and graphics, selected to illuminate this week's geography. Or maths. Or French. Imagine, with a further click, a global archive of related material, presented in an accessible, exciting way. Look at the clock. It's 10am. A teacher beside the desk is guiding the child through the learning journey.

Look at the clock again. It's now eight in the evening. Same computer, same child, but now at home. Two hours later the child is gone, replaced by his mum, or sister. All learning the same way, each pursuing different interests or skills.

This is the learning vision of the future. The BBC can and should play a central role in helping to deliver this vision. Education was one of the BBC's original departments in 1922. Two years later it began to produce radio for schools, described by the historian Asa Briggs as "the envy of educationists in every country". In 1957 schools TV began. In 1971, Open University programmes. Since 1997 Teletubbies has provided one-to- three- year-olds with a foundation for learning in literacy, number and social skills, story, movement, music, and the wider world. It was a radical departure. And the website, packed with educational activities, receives more than a million hits a week.

The vision is simple: "By harnessing the power of the digital media we want to offer everyone, at different stages of their lives, the opportunity to flourish through learning."

That's the vision. The BBC wants to develop a bank of interactive digital modules to support the entire national curricula. Our aim is to rise to the challenge of the PlayStation generation by making public service children's content as compelling as computer games.

But, of course, there is a cost. The BBC is already spending some pounds 400m a year on educative content. We need to increase this investment by 50 per cent. I am certain we shall be able to deliver this only if the Government agrees with the Davies Report and significantly increases the level of funding for the BBC.

I don't like asking for more money. But I believe passionately that if Britain is to be a major player in the information age something must be done. It does matter; it can be done; the BBC can deliver it.