Big Bird goes back to school

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The Independent Online
Children don't like mothers working. Especially this one, who is about to leave for New York to visit the set of Sesame Street. 'What about Take Your Daughter to Work day?' says my eldest. Another trawls her schoolbag for evidence of maternal neglect: she fishes out an unfinished school play costume that I've forgotten to do.

'You'll miss my birthday,' wails the four-year-old - it's next month and I'm going away for two days, but Big Bird, her favourite Sesame Street character, would understand.

Staggering under a load of guilt, I join the Virgin flight. Several hours later, in a child-free zone, enjoying a bit of quality adult time, I'm having trouble reading. All the window shutters have been pulled down as every other passenger stares in the gloom at the tiny video screens inset on the back of seats at eye level. An air hostess pipes up to tell us not to worry, the films will finish just before we land. How can we blame children for being so video-oriented when we are ourselves? Now we even measure out our journeys in video timings. . . .

I think of Sesame Street as a good deed in a naughty world. I buy the line that by using advertising gimmicks and attention-grabbing muppet puppets, it uses television to educate for a worthwhile purpose. I'm in New York because Sesame Street, made by the Children's Television Workshop, is 25 years old. Even Hillary Clinton has made a guest appearance with Big Bird.

But there's nothing cosy about my visit. Sesame Street is in the middle of a rethink. Put bluntly, they've found out that children who watch the programme are not learning how to read. So urgent steps are under way to tighten up - for these are extremely sincere programme-makers. Valeria Lovelace, director of Sesame Street research, says that for the next series which starts filming in September it is Back To Basics.

Last year, after being prompted by a dynamic new executive producer, she carried out research to measure the literacy levels of 120 five-year-olds regularly watching it. Hardly any of them could master the alphabet. 'I was appalled. Fives should be moving in that direction.'

So next month she is holding a special seminar to pick the brains of top child educationalists about how to make effective changes. Her first task will be to rewrite the part of the programme's curriculum that deals with literacy: Sesame Street has a bible which sets out each year's educational goals and which every creative writer and producer starts with.

Now this is revolutionary stuff because Sesame Street's historic strength - the reason that I've sat through hours of it with my children when it's on Channel 4 - is that it has helped generations of deprived children to read, count and be prepared for school. So how has this come about?

Not all this ineffectiveness can be the programme's fault, for children are also supposedly being cared for by nurseries. But the fact is that for the past four years Sesame Street has been pursuing a policy of positive race relations, encouraging tolerance by focusing on four different groups - African Americans, native Indians, Latinos and Asian Americans. Perhaps the emphasis on worthy social goals has diluted the educational impact. For example, the curriculum says that a child should be expected to know two Spanish phrases.

Already the programmes are being adjusted and for the new series that starts in Britain this autumn the three little sequences in every show on the day's letter of the alphabet will be brought together in one block to make a longer impact on the child viewer.

Another possible reason for the neglect of basic educational elements may be Sesame Street's impressive international success. The tough production schedule may have down-played the use of letters on screen because some of the countries receiving the programme don't use our alphabet. Whatever the reason, Mrs Lovelace says that in the new shows more script on screen is needed.

Americans are as anxious as we are in Britain that literacy seems to be falling. Watching television may be producing more verbally bright children, but it does not appear to be helping children to read. So the assumption that children would somehow master their ABCs painlessly while watching educational television was wrong; in fact, learning to read can be a real slog.

I wondered whether Mrs Lovelace feared a backlash from people who have always been dubious about the ability of television to educate and who will now seize upon the programme's findings as proof that political correctness has gone too far.

But Sesame Street can also point to a mass of anecdotal evidence, which I can add to, that it has helped children in very many ways. Mrs Lovelace refers to a generation of children who, when they pass a playing field with American football's rugby-style goal posts, say 'H'. Her main conclusion, though, is that there is a need to tighten up and that it is extremely easy to drift away from your key educational objectives.

I end the day at the historic Astoria film studios in Queens, where a Sesame Street birthday special is being filmed for ABC (an irony which no one else seems to get). I sit for a while with a gentle and dedicated puppeteer called Caroll Spinney who has played Big Bird, the programme's 8ft-tall, yellow-feathered star, for 25 years. He takes a paternal interest in Big Bird, and says he is responsible for fixing Big Bird's age at six. After all this time on Sesame Street, I hope Big Bird can read and write.