One could say that ‘wireless education’ in the form of radio broadcasts to schools was the first type of ‘distance learning’ in the UK. With a mission ‘to inform, educate and entertain’, the broadcasts began with an experimental radio broadcast to a single school in Glasgow in February 1924 (Crook, 2007, p. 216). According to David Crook, “… the transmission included a talk about the place of ballad in literature, a reading in French by a professor from Glasgow University, and the performance of a violin piece” (Ibid.).
By the time the BBC received its Royal Charter as the Nation’s broadcaster in 1927, the Education Committee was well-established under the leadership of J.C. Stobart who had been an HMI for the Board of Education before being recruited by the BBC’s first Director General, John Reith. In the same year the Schools Broadcasting Committee, a subset of the Education Committee, approved the publication of pamphlets to accompany the broadcasts. However, not all was smooth sailing for the BBC as some teachers and also some Local Education Authorities (LEAs), particularly the London County Council (LCC), were opposed to the Corporation interfering in what they saw as the teachers’ domain. The LCC’s anti-BBC stance was problematic for the negativity spread to the other LEAs. The BBC took pains to emphasise that the broadcasts were to ‘supplement’ the school curriculum rather than to replace the lessons taught in schools. By 1928, following an experiment with the schools in Kent which resulted in a report on the quality of broadcasts both in terms of the aural reception and the impact of the broadcasts on the school curriculum, the BBC made significant changes to the way in which the programmes were made.
Rather than lecture the children as had been the case with the early transmissions – the teacher being peripheral to the lesson – following the Kent experiment, the Schools Broadcasting Committee began to involve teachers in an advisory capacity to work with the subject sub-committees. This was one way in which the BBC attempted to appease the teachers who considered the BBC was patronising in its tone and too highbrow in terms of the content. The subject sub-committees tried to ensure pupils (and their teachers) could engage with the programme content by providing exercises in the pamphlets and a list of further topics to encourage discussion. Concurrently, the BBC also began to present their programmes at various teacher-training colleges and teachers’ conferences in order to promote the schools broadcasts to trainee teachers and obtain feedback from the profession.
Asa Briggs, the author of the four-volume History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, believed that schools broadcasting ‘revolutionalised’ the medium as an educational instrument (Briggs, 1995, v. 2, p. 180). Certainly, there was support for this new medium by the Board of Education for the 1926 Hadow Report on The Education of the Adolescent also refers to the pivotal role radio broadcasts could play in enhancing learning through cultivating the imagination – this was something that the first Director of Schools Programming Mary Somerville believed in passionately and attempted to realise in these broadcasts. Of consequence is the fact that Hadow was also the chairman of the BBC Committee which produced the report on adult education, New Ventures in Broadcasting (March, 1928) (Briggs, 1995, v. 2, p. 173). John Reith, the founder and first director general of the BBC, is reported to have said that this report could easily have been entitled ‘New Ventures in Education’.
By the late 1920s the Schools Broadcasting Committee had authorised the publication of illustrated pamphlets as guides to the broadcasts. These were hugely popular so that by 1927, 233,000 they were distributed to participating schools and by the following year over forty programmes, some with regional variations, were transmitted from studios in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Bournemouth and Belfast. Between 1929 and 1930, 5,000 schools across the country were subscribing to the broadcasts and over 560,000 pamphlets, edited by various subject committees, were distributed.
A volume from the BBC Broadcasts to Schools Collection from 1934 will be showcased at Treasures of the Written Word, UCL Festival of Culture. It is an early example of the pamphlets that accompanied the schools broadcasts on different subjects taught during the Interwar years. The pamphlets continued to be published until 1979.
The use of the Collection at the Institute of Education
The Collection provides for interesting research material on the impact of new technology on teaching and learning during the Interwar years as well as the development of a curriculum for secondary schools (which were growing in number since the implementation of the 1918 Education Act which made schooling compulsory for children 5 to 14 years). It is also a useful collection for anyone researching pedagogy, particularly as it relates to the burgeoning of progressive education practices.
Over the years, many scholars, both home-based and from abroad have used the collection. Amongst the researchers who have recently consulted this collection are the well-known art historian Ruth Artmonsky and the BBC World Service Producer Kazimierz Janowski. Additionally, it is one of the more popular collections for postgraduate students, both at Masters and PhD level.
An artist currently using the Collection is David Bassedone. David remembers the pamphlets from his school days in the 1950s. The pamphlets he requests match his many interests — in travel, industry, the outdoors and art. It is with thanks to both him and Julia Rasmussen (the photographer) that I share here one of David’s sketches and a photograph of him working in the Reading Room at the Institute of Education. Information about David’s recent work can be found here.
Briggs, A. (1994). The history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom Vol II: The golden age of wireless. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Crook, D. (2007). School broadcasting in the United Kingdom: an exploratory history. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 39(3), 217-226.