The BBC Trust consultation on the release of indigenous language content (Welsh, Irish and Gaelic) from the axed BBC Jam online service closed last week. In the absence of any major objection, it's possible that the content could go live on bbc.co.uk sites by spring 2009. However, the BBC remains silent about the release of any other materials, or a strategy to get them to learners.
The UK indigenous languages content is in two lists: an A List of materials which are complete and near readiness for release; a B List of content "desirable" for release but requiring further work (full lists of both below). The BBC estimates that it will cost at least a further £720,000 to prepare and release the A List materials (they cost around £10 million to produce) and they would have a "valuable lifespan" of five years.
Schools in Wales, Ireland and Scotland will welcome the news, and the reaction from school suppliers, who had been strongly opposed to the original enterprise, has been cautiously positive.
The British Educational Suppliers Association welcomed the consultation and recognised the "exceptional circumstances" for the release of the materials (and for special needs materials too) but pointed out that the BBC Trust had still not carried out the review into the "non-compliance" of approval conditions of BBC Jam that was requested by the European Commission. And it raised a number of concerns along with a request for clarification on specific points (full response at the BESA wewbsite).
Deep commercial flaw was obvious from the outset
A key problem for the BBC appears to be its consistent failure to engage and collaborate with other suppliers to the education "marketplace" - unless, of course, it is commissioning work from them. That failure of partnership, common also to the then Department for Education and Skills and other key architects of the doomed Digital Curriculum/BBC Jam, was what allowed a deep commercial flaw to remain, and to bring down a £160 million national project. It was sadly obvious to independent observers and, eventually, to the European Commission which was always going to be its ultimate destination.
The axing of BBC Jam caused polarisation within education; some associated with, and some employed by the BBC have claimed that schools and pupils had been let down by naked commercial interests. But schools and pupils had always been hostages to fortune as BBC Jam was bulldozed through in the hope that the objectors would pipe down and disappear. Bluntly, the BBC Trust would never have withdrawn and then shelved Jam if it truly felt that the BBC was blameless and that its activities would be upheld by commercial adjudicators in Europe.
Those critical of BBC Jam have been painted as "anti-BBC", even though most of them feel that the BBC should be at the heart of UK education. And that should still hold true. But there is still plenty of unfinished business. For example there is bad feeling about the special needs materials - thought to be high quality and extremely effective - that are still locked away.
However, there is little evidence of a change in style at the BBC, and many of the points raised by Besa ought to have been smoothed out in industry discussions before the current consultation process had even begun, making a satisfactory and speedy outcome more likely.
BBC Jam was suspended more than a year ago. That it has taken so long to release indigenous language materials, which ought not to represent a thorny commercial issue, suggests that the prospects for the issue other materials, even those for special needs, look grim. Contractual issues and shelf life play a negative part here too.
Beyond the expected problems there is also a whiff of "If you don't want to play my way then I'll take the ball away." Except that this multi-million pound ball has been paid for by licence payers with, presumably, money that had been set aside for educational broadcasting. Solutions for the aftermath of BBC Jam require goodwill and creativity all round - but there is little sign of that yet.
Non-compliance of Jam's approval conditions still an issue
That the BBC Trust has not carried out a review - ie, come to terms with the commercial unfairness that was Jam's undoing - is what appears to lie behind Besa's own reiteration of the problem in its response to the consultation. It ought to have been uneccessary: "BESA remains of the view that there was strong evidence that BBC Jam did not comply with its approval conditions; in particular with condition 4 (that the service, taken as a whole, should be distinctive from, and complementary to, services provided by the commercial sector?). Any decision to re-use or re-purpose existing BBC Jam assets needs to be considered in the context of this potential non-compliance."
BESA director-gerneral Dominic Savage commented, "The BESA response accepts the potential value of the indigenous language ex-jam content to the relevant communities. However, noting that there has been little commercial investment in them in the past for market size reasons, we do feel it would be better if routes for commercial delivery were sought as part of a process which could kick-start further investment. If delivery is via the BBC, the content is fixed in time and its relevance will diminish to the disservice of those communities.
"Overall however, given that the Trust said on February 27 2008 that it is:"... the shared view of the Trust and the Executive Board that even a modified version of BBC Jam based around delivery of the curriculum is not deliverable given the regulatory constraints and ongoing commercial concerns", this should imply that the BBC does not itself deliver any Jam content; and that other, preferably commercial, routes are pursued.
"Worryingly, the proportion of indigenous language material that is ready or close to ready for delivery will still require expenditure of £750,000 to prepare it, and other, less prepared, materials will require a significantly larger, though unspecified expenditure. The Trust should not agree to any unspecified expenditure.
"Also of concern is that the BBC management's assessment of the quality of the content, which is meant to be a significant issue in any decision by the Trust, appears to be limited to three statements from organisations which may be considered to have a vested interest, as opposed to a proper educational assessment."
If the quality BBC Jam materials among the mixed bag created at great expense are ever to get to learners before they are beyond their sell-by date, then it will take liberal doses of humility, honesty and accountability at the BBC. In common parlance, executives need to build themselves a bridge, get over it and take their place in a vibrant, inclusive education market as a fellow collaborator, - an extremely important and influential one. Failure to claw back significant value from the BBC Jam debacle could turn this affair into a scandal. It's time for politicians to ask questions.
BBC Trust consultation on indigenous languages content
BBC Jam and Future BBC Learning Strategy
Besa response to BBC Trust consultation
Commercial showreel of Atticmedia content that has been axed with BBC Jam
The A List (completed material which could be available by spring 2009)
Welsh 2nd Lang 5-7
Welsh and Gaelic
Welsh, Irish and Gaelic
Irish 2nd language
Gaelic 2nd language
The B List (desirable for release but requiring further work)
Welsh 2nd Language 7-11
Welsh and Gaelic