Radio 4 takes the blame for the dumbing down of the nation

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The "dumbing down" of British society is hindering the Government's crusade to raise educational achievement, the minister in charge of schools' standards claimed yesterday.

Stephen Byers, announcing plans to unite parents, schools and government in the fight to boost literacy skills, singled out the changing character of BBC Radio 4 as an example of an obstacle to the standards drive.

He said: "At a time when we are trying to drive forward on the standards agenda it does not help if, in other aspects of public life, standards are being seen to be revised or damaged. The dumbing down that is pervading all sorts of establishments and institutions - even Radio 4 - does not help in maintaining the commitment to high standards."

Mr Byers launched his attack as he unveiled details of the Government's strategy to meet its ambitious literacy targets by the end of the century. Ministers want to raise the proportion of 11-year-olds achieving expected literacy standards for their age from less than 60 per cent at present to 80 per cent by 2002.

The minister's comments follow revelations that Radio 4 controller James Boyle is planning sweeping changes to the station's schedule.

Critics have suggested that moves to turn Melvyn Bragg's Monday morning Start the Week programme into a celebrity chat show, and absorb Farming Today and Yesterday in Parliament into the Today programme, compromise Radio 4's mission to inform.

However, the BBC's board of governors last week insisted it was satisfied that the plans did not undermine quality.

Mr Byers's criticisms came in response to questions over the contribution of the children's BBC television programme Teletubbies to the fight to raise literacy standards. The programme has come under fire from parents who question its educational content.

Mr Byers declined to comment on an individual programme, but said children's television viewing should be balanced with 20-minute daily reading sessions with parents.

"We are moving in one direction in trying to raise standards in the world of education and elsewhere in our country there are attempts to lower standards," he added.

Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, said he shared Mr Byers' concern over the importance of broadcasting to children's education, but said there was no real evidence of an "abandonment of standards across the board" by the BBC.

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