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The BBC Trust say ‘let them eat jam’!

publication date: Apr 4, 2007
author/source: Richard Taylor

The BBC Trust has announced that it is halting BBC jam while it carries out a review of the project.

The impetus for the review is the complaint BESA has made to the EU and the fact that the Content Advisory Board had recommended that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport carry out its own assessment by September 2006 – something that never happened.

In theory, BBC jam has been on hold since before the BETT Show in January, and when we spoke to Richard Pietrasik, he said that while the uploading of newly completed content was temporarily suspended, new content was still being commissioned and developed. This always sounded like a fudge with Pietrasik and his team viewing this as nothing more than a minor delay to their £150m educational juggernaut.

Announcing the suspension, Acting BBC Trust Chairman, Chitra Bharucha, said the Trust ‘regretted the need to suspend the service’. The press release also said, ‘The Trust has requested BBC management to prepare fresh proposals for how the BBC should deliver the Charter obligation to promote formal education and learning, meeting the online needs of school-age children. Once completed, the Trust will subject BBC management's proposals to a full Public Value Test, including a market impact assessment by Ofcom’. Bharucha also said, ‘the Governors requested management suspend the roll out of any new BBC Jam content’.

Rather than allay concerns of critics like BESA, Bharucha’s announcement has made things worse. Critics question how the BBC Trust can be objective and independent in a review of one of its own major projects when the Content Advisory Board had recommended last year a review be carried out by the DCMS in advance of the two statutory reviews the BBC was supposed to undertake this year. Bharucha claims the new proposal is better because ‘two consecutive regulatory reviews would be unnecessarily bureaucratic and complex, with serious implications for delivery of the service to licence fee payers’. Really, this is just another example of the BBC changing the rules as it goes.

What also has BECTA members hopping mad was the way they were told about the impending review at a meeting hosted by Stephen Crowne of BECTA at the start of March. At this event a document was circulated setting out the BBC Trust’s plans; labelled draft 23, BESA’s members were incensed that there had been no prior consultation. They asked to have a say, something Crowne seemed to agree with. A few days later the attendees were sent draft 24 with a note from Crowne saying that there was not time to have a proper consultation but that he had taken their concerns on board.

We believe that the review guidelines as they stand are unsound and that the BBC Trust should step aside and allow the DCMS and OFCOM to take this work forward. This wouldn’t be any more complicated or expensive than the BBC’s proposal and would have the advantage of being seen as independent and therefore more likely to gain the confidence of those who have brought the complaints in the first place.

The BBC Trust has given the management team of BBC jam 12 weeks to explain how it will ‘build on its existing investment’ and ‘consider how a fresh proposition can best meet the needs of 5 to 16 year-olds; and to take account of changes in the market and new developments since BBC jam was approved in 2003’. On top of this there will be months of the Public Value Tests including the involvement of OFCOM. We doubt there will be any firm decisions before the summer at the earliest as the review will still need to be ratified by the DCMS and EU. This poses another problem as BBC jam’s DCMS/EU approval runs out on 31 September 2008, leaving only a few months for BBC jam II to achieve any of its new targets, not to mention spending the remaining £75m in the budget!

In the meantime perhaps we should reflect on what BBC jam had achieved by March 2007:

  • Spending - £75m out of total budget of £150m
  • Audience – 170k registered users giving an average cost per user of £441.18
    Content available –10%
  • Content developed - undisclosed
  • Awards – none
  • Staff – BBC 190. Numbers amongst contractors and subcontractors unknown.

Not a particularly impressive record educationally, or from an operational perspective. BBC jam may have helped the corporation achieve its Royal Charter renewal, but the negative impact on the UK educational software industry and the review may actually precipitate the expected consolidation in the sector.

The government has painted itself into a corner. When it set up Electronic Learning Credits (ELCs), it made a major (£280m) investment in building up capacity in the sector so that schools would have access to high-quality digital resources suitable for the local curricula. It then approved £150m for BBC jam, something any idiot could see would unwind their investment in ELCs.

We suspect, given the nature of the relationship between Downing Street and the BBC (post Hutton), that the current proposal may well end up laying responsibility for this imbroglio at the door of the BBC Trust. A deft political move, but one that won’t help improve the relationship between the government and BBC.

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