Flow of Ideas
E-learning for Free at the BBC: Jam Jammed


Glenn Rikowski, London, 16th March 2007


E-Moans from Private Sector Educational Publishers

In the Financial Times yesterday it was reported that the BBC has been told to suspend its popular BBC Jam website as educational publishers in the private sector feel that it is damaging their businesses (see Boone, 2007). Indeed, some had complained to the European Commission about BBC Jam (Ibid). BBC Jam supports schoolchildren in navigating their way through and learning for the National Curriculum. It targets 5 to 16-years olds, and 170,000 of these young people have registered for it (Boone, 2007). BBC Jam cost £150 to set up, according to Jon Boone.

However, if young learners now go into the BBC Jam website [1] fired up by wanting to learn about the Vikings or whatever, they will be told that:

"We are sorry to have to inform you that the BBC Jam service will be suspended with effect from 20th March 2007. That means that you will no longer be able to access and use the resources on this site after that date. Unfortunately this also means that any work you have saved or created will be lost, as will any playlists or groups you may have set up."

Perhaps young people might be learning some lessons about how capital works, and how the capitalist state bows to its demands, needs and diktats. Yet I would be rather surprised if many teachers actually used this huge letdown to throw light on the kind of society their students actually live in – as the National Curriculum probably doesn't cater for it. Maybe critique of the educational publishing companies' moans and groans about BBC Jam might be addressed through 'economic awareness' sessions, or be squeezed into the little time spent on citizenship education.

Jon Boone (2007) reports on some of the 'arguments' of these educational publishers regarding why BBC Jam is such an apparent threat to their operations, for example:

"Yesterday, Dominic Savage, director-general of the British Educational Suppliers' Association, which represents education software publishers, said BBC Jam had stunted the development of the online education market and helped to push some companies out of business." … and:

"Phil Hemmings, head of corporate affairs at RM [2], a leading supplier of computer equipment to schools, said the company had moved away from educational publishing in response to the "road block" of the BBC."

However, it seems that the BBC's "road block" consists of supplying a service that school students want to use – for free. But school students are not silly; if the material supplied was inadequate then they would soon work this out. Thus, the problem with BBC Jam is that it is clearly supplying a good but free service that the kids actually want. Those supplying such IT services demanding payment fall down because it appears that what they are offering is not worth paying for. This seems to be a major success story for BBC Jam. It goes against the grain of New Labour thinking and policy, which glorifies private provision. In this instance: state service good; private sector services not worth paying for.

The educational publishers have been groaning about the BBC's impact and quality in this field for some time. Four years ago I noted that:

“The BBC has plans for offering online educational services for schools. However, commercial operators in this field have complained that such a move would drive out private investors. The government's response to these private sector fears is that the BBC plans for online schools services will come under constraints to ensure that private operators such as Granada, Heinemann and Pearson can compete effectively. There will be a review of the BBC's activity in this area in two years time” (see Malkani, 2003, in Rikowski, 2003, p.4). Yet the private operators were not happy with this review and conditions for operating BBC Jam set by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The BBC Trust's decision to suspend BBC Jam was made in conjunction with the demand that the BBC Executive come forward with proposals to meet the learning needs of school-age children whilst not putting the businesses of private operators in jeopardy. As some have noted, if this principle was generalised then other services such as health or even frontline education services might be similarly bullied and harassed or terminated [3]. The BBC Trust indicated that it would subject any proposals by the BBC Executive to resolve the issue 'to a full Public Value Test, including a market impact assessment by Ofcom' (BBC Trust, 2007, p.1). However, the BBC Trust did say that it would include an open consultation where 'the public and all other stakeholders will be invited to respond' (Ibid.).

Apparently, the private educational publishers had contacted the European Commission regarding their disapproval of how BBC Jam was operating with respect to Article 87(1) of the EC Treaty which:

"…prohibits any aid granted by a Member State through State resources which distorts or threatens competition by favouring certain undertakings in so far as it affects trade between Member States" (BBC Trust, 2007, p.2).

The BBC Executive was disappointed about the stance of the BBC Trust, especially over the suspension of services (BBC Executive, 2007, p.1). Mark Thompson, the BBC Director-General noted that:

"We believe the BBC Jam is an innovative proposition, aimed at pushing forward the BBC's digital learning agenda and delivering the formal educational remit enshrined in our Charter. The service was launched in January 206 with many conditions attached, following a rigorous consultation process. It was approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in January 2003 and by the European Commission in October the same year. Since then, the BBC Jam team –and numerous independent suppliers – have aimed to deliver the vision of a distinctive interactive online resource focussed on the individual learner" (BBC Executive, 2007, p.1).

Thompson sympathised with the staff involved in the service and also the many children who had used it.

If BBC Jam is shut down, then an apparently valuable and popular state service, and the £150million taken to develop and maintain it, will go the way of the wishes of representatives of capital.


Thinking back to the Community Programme

All this reminds me of what I was doing in 1983-84 when I was designing Community Programmes for the adult unemployed in Coventry. In setting up these programmes, there had to be some community benefit whilst no negative impact on local businesses. We also had to take into account that we should not be duplicating or impacting negatively on existing local or central state services. Community Programmes were therefore hard to design! Most of our best ideas had consequences for the private sector. We had some great ideas about building bird boxes and putting them up in local parks and woodlands, but local pet shops selling bird boxes were a stumbling block to that masterstroke.

The situation regarding BBC Jam does have wider consequences, though. If it is shut down, then perhaps other private suppliers of education or health services in other sectors might make the same move as private educational publishers and software suppliers. For example, where schools choose to employ their own supply teachers directly (either individually or through a sharing programme), then supply teaching agencies might object that this hits their businesses.


Jam the National Curriculum?

One of the problems for private educational publishers and software houses might be that there is a National Curriculum (NC). The BBC and the Department for Education & Skills (in its various incarnations) have established a wide variety of IT and TV resources for the NC. It may well be in the interests of private operators if, firstly, the grip that the BBC and DfES has on these resources is loosened or abolished (by selling them off), or that the National Curriculum is loosened or abolished – thus giving them a second chance.

However, in abolishing the National Curriculum, New Labour would lose one of the mechanisms supporting its outlooks on competition and the marketisation of the schools sector. It would make it more difficult for parents and others to compare school performances. In these circumstances, the break up of outfits like BBC Jam seem to be the easier capital-friendly option, and less disruptive to the capitalisation of school services in England as a whole.


Notes:

[1] See the BBC Jam statement on suspension of the service at: https://jam.bbc.co.uk/Auth/Welcome.aspx?TBReturnUrl=%2fDefault.aspx

[2] RM is Research Machines, a major supplier of computers to schools, colleges and universities.

[3] As Mhairi McAlpine noted on the UK Left Network earlier today: "This has quite serious implications for government provision of services. Could BUPA complain that the NHS is damaging its business?"


References

BBC Executive (2007) BBC Jam to be suspended, Press Release of the BBC Executive Press Office, 14th March, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2007/03_march/14/jam.shtml

BBC Trust (2007) BBC Trust suspends BBC Jam, Press Release of the BBC Trust, 14th March, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/news/press_releases/14_03_2007.html

Boone, J. (2007) BBC told to suspend £150m website, Financial Times, 15th March, p.2.

Malkani, G. (2003) BBC schools service to be under scrutiny, Financial Times, 10th January, p.5.

Rikowski, G. (2003) The Profit Virus: The Business Takeover of Schools, School of Education, University College Northampton, February. Online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20Profit%20Virus%20-%20The%20Business%20Takeover%20of%20Schools


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