Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education)


  1.  The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education works to encourage more and different adults to engage in learning of all kinds. NIACE has a longstanding interest in how communication technologies can contribute to learning—indeed the British Film Institute grew from an initiative of what was then the British Institute for Adult Education. NIACE's current functions include research (including work on the promotion of media literacy), development and consultancy; advocacy to inform and influence public policy; information services and dissemination; campaigning for, and celebrating the achievements of, adult learners. Established in 1921, NIACE is an independent non-governmental organisation, a registered charity and company limited by guarantee. Its corporate and individual members come from all sectors concerned with adult learning: colleges; local authorities; universities; voluntary and community organisations; broadcasters; churches and unions. While receiving core grants from the DfES, the National Assembly for Wales and through the 1988 Local Government Act, the majority of its income is earned through research, development and consultancy work—including contracts with the UK government, the EU and the national lottery.

  2.  Educational and educative broadcasting for adults is a crucial component of public service broadcasting but there is a real danger that, without a strong Parliamentary steer, the regulatory framework proposed in the Draft Communications Bill will fail to give sufficient protection to such programming remaining on-screen and available widely through analogue transmission. If this were to occur, a significant opportunity to build a lifelong learning society will have been lost.

  3.  This note summarises the case for lifelong learning to be included alongside schools broadcasting within a "second tier" regulatory regime, not left to self-regulation. It also suggests:

    —  That the remit of the OFCOM Content Board (Clause 18) and the regulatory provisions of chapter 4 of the draft bill should include explicit reference to the promotion of lifelong learning and that ;

    —  That the promotion of media literacy (Clause 10) must be considered alongside access to the technologies of electronic communication and the purposes for which they are used.


  4.  It is undeniable that, since ITV's educational broadcasting obligations were relaxed by legislation in 1990, pressure to achieve market share has resulted in dedicated educational programming being marginalized within the schedules of the mass channels; migrating to minority digital channels; and being pushed off-screen onto websites. While this may well be satisfactory for the needs of schools and individuals who are motivated and clear that they want to learn, it has meant that the capacity of broadcasting to capture the curiousity, and to stimulate people who have not previously taken part to engage in learning has been reduced.

  5.  Reaching adults and encouraging them to learn requires very different arrangements and strategies than those for children and young people. Broadcasts can teach or stimulate directly but they may also be educative, leading people on to enquire further: to read books, go to museums or galleries, get advice or enrol on a course. The key challenge is to reach the less well-educated including those who are unsure of what they want. In this respect educational programming is unique in that it is led by its educational intent and not, as most popular TV, by a format. It is designed to stimulate learning and has an educational agenda but the programme itself can take any form. The assumption that documentary or factual programming is automatically also educational is a fallacy.

  6.  Given the cultural power of electronic media to shape public expectations and aspirations, NIACE argues that broadcasters have a public responsibility to continue to deliver educational broadcasting, free at the point of use and with universal access on mass channels. We believe that this responsibility is such that OFCOM should have a clear and explicit mandate to ensure that such programming is secured.

  7.  Analogue broadcasting is currently the only way to achieve universal access, reaching the whole population free in their own homes. Relying on digital channels and the internet to deliver educational and educative programming is not a satisfactory strategy, not least because it excludes most of the population—including, of course, most TV licence-payers:

    —  The majority of the population does not have multi-channel access and is reliant on analogue TV from the BBC and Channel 4 for the bulk of public service broadcasting;

    —  The majority of TV set purchases are still for analogue receivers and cheap digital set-top boxes are only just coming onto the market;

    —  The public at large is not yet convinced of the benefit of digital TV and older people, in particular, are still much more reliant on analogue TV;

    —  The majority of the population do not have regular access to the internet and fewer still have access in their home. Access is also linked strongly to socio-economic position.

    —  The majority of people with internet access do not use it for learning.

  8.  Chapter 4 of the draft legislation includes detailed obligations for OFCOM to regulate with respect to culture; news and current affairs, listed sport events, children's programmes and provision for deaf and visually impaired people. While schools' programmes are covered specifically, there is no similar protection for educational programmes for adults. We believe that the Committee will wish to consider why the draft legislation cannot cover such an important issue of content when the Bill wishes (paragraph 193) to regulate the geographical location of programme production outside the M25 area! NIACE believes that protecting educational broadcasting for adults is a topic that should not be left to "third tier" self-regulation by providers. It should, instead play a role in building and inclusive and cohesive society.


  8.  There are several ways in which the draft legislation could be amended to give OFCOM a stronger regulatory function in respect of lifelong learning. The first of these would be to give the organisation a statutory duty to establish a lifelong learning committee or panel reporting to the OFCOM Content Board (Clause 18). The idea of legislating for statutory committees within a non-departmental public body was used within the Learning and Skills Act 2000 to ensure proper scrutiny of particular topics.

  9.  A further opportunity lies within Clauses 12, 96 and 97. Clause 12 gives OFCOM a duty to make arrangements to ascertain public opinion on certain issues. The legislation might be clarified so as to encourage OFCOM to take a broad view of customer research in to the quality of content, linking this to the Customer Consultation and Representation Clauses (96 and 97) which should be strengthened so as add consultation on educational content to the remit of the Consumer Panel.

  10.  A third area concerns the regulatory provisions contained in chapter 4 of the draft legislation. Here, although NIACE is reassured by much of the content of Clause 181 (which confirms that "educational matters" are covered by the public service remit, we note that the Bill contains detailed protection for such topics as schools programmes on channel 4 (Clause 198) yet there is no complementary clause protecting educational programming for adults on all public service channels. This appears a serious omission. We remain concerned that the provisions in Clause 183 for providers to prepare annual statements of programme policy is an inadequate safeguard.


  11.  NIACE welcomes Clause 10 of the draft Bill that gives OFCOM the function of promotion of media literacy. We have, in collaboration with the BSC, ITC and BFI, commissioned a review of the academic literature on assessing the media literacy of UK adults. An important, if obvious finding of this work is that access to media is a prerequisite to media literacy. Not only does this emphasise the information in paragraph 7 of this note, it also relates to additional work undertaken by NIACE into adult participation in learning which highlights a polarisation between those who are information-rich, knowledge-rich and who tend to be educationally privileged and those who lack access to newer electronic communication technologies such as the internet and digital TV and who tend to be less likely to engage in formal learning opportunities.

  12.  It would be an unfortunate paradox if OFCOM were to have a duty to promote media literacy and yet the services that it regulates provided little or no educational and educative programming accessible to the majority of the adult population—including many of those with the greatest need.


  13.  NIACE would be pleased to provide the Committee with further information about anything covered in this note or any aspect of lifelong learning policy relating to the Draft Communications Bill. We would also welcome the opportunity to give oral evidence to the Joint Committee. Please contact Alan Tuckett (Director) or Alastair Thomson (Policy & Development Officer).

June 2002

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