Children's lives are 'stunted by TV wallpaper'

Head Teachers' Conference: Labour education expert says decline in reading is biggest problem
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Morning television is reducing children's attention spans so they cannot concentrate at school, according to the head of Labour's new literacy task force.

Michael Barber, a professor at London's Institute of Education, told head teachers yesterday that schools should advise parents to encourage their children to read more and watch television less.

He attacked Channel 4's Big Breakfast programme, saying it led to pupils arriving at school unprepared for lessons.

"Do we have to put up with The Big Breakfast or the moving wallpaper that passes for children's television?" he asked.

Although there is no reputable research on the effects of cartoons and other children's programmes on education, they might cause under-achievement in later life, he said.

Just as babies given dummies in the 1920s were found to do less well in later life, academics in 2050 might find that today's television had had a similar effect, he told the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Torquay.

Mr Barber praised strong dramas, such as Byker Grove, a children's soap set in the north-east, and computer games which demanded participation rather than passive observation.

Television and games should excite the imagination and encourage young people to seek information about the world, he suggested.

While high-profile school discipline problems tended to capture headlines, children's inability to concentrate was a bigger issue for schools, he said. Parents, teachers and the media should work to ensure that children read more books and watched quality television.

"Television has many positive aspects but the problem is that children watch it to the exclusion of reading," he said.

Mr Barber said the real issue was to find ways of raising all pupils' reading ages to that of the current average by the age of 11, within 10 years.

The most important factors would be raising teaching standards and encouraging effective parenting he said.

Schools should make it compulsory for all parents to meet teachers to discuss their children's progress every six months, he said.

Mr Barber was a member of the Government's first education association, which was sent into Hackney Downs School in east London and which recommended its closure. Labour's Education spokesman, David Blunkett, appointed him this week to head a task force which will set targets for schools to raise standards of literacy.