The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

Education And The Role Of Public Service Media

During the pandemic we have come to realise the importance of public service media for education. But how did we manage to lose a sizeable chunk of schools programming? And what are the options for reinvigorating our schools service and increasing funding for children's media?

When I joined Channel 4 in 1992 as Deputy Commissioning Editor, Schools, it had recently taken over responsibility for schools broadcasting from ITV.  My colleague and friend Paul Ashton was Commissioning Editor.  Over the next eleven years we commissioned television programmes for schools, to be used in classrooms under the guidance of teachers.  We commissioned about 35 companies a year, from across the UK, to make the programmes.  These companies ranged from the large — some of the ITV companies which had previously formed ITV Schools — to small independents employing a handful of people.  In the case of the ITV companies, we commissioned continuations of several series which ITV had for many years produced and broadcast, and which had large and loyal followings amongst teachers and children.

The Broadcasting Act 1990, which among many other measures had imposed on Channel 4 the responsibility for schools broadcasting, required us to broadcast at least 330 hours of schools programmes a year, during the school terms.  We did our best to ensure that our output was relevant to the school curricula in the four parts of the UK.  We had a team of education officers to help us do this.  We had a budget of about £10 million a year.

None of this would have happened without public-service regulation.  In fact, the very reason for our existence was that government intervention, which had reduced ITV’s public-service obligations, had meant that ITV was quite willing to divest itself of a commercial ‘burden’ which it had honourably carried since schools television began in the UK in the mid-1950s.

All this time, BBC Schools was running an operation about twice our size, paid for by the licence fee.  Schools broadcasting in the UK was envied by providers across the world.  This achievement had much to do with the talent and commitment of the people who made the programmes. But behind it lay a framework of legislation which enabled that talent and commitment to do its work.

UK children’s media, then and now

Beyond education, over many decades, children’s media has thrived in the UK.  The scale of public-service commitment to children’s programmes has been huge.  The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C have distinguished track records, in the first two cases going back many decades to the early days of television.  The BBC’s and ITV’s back catalogues positively heave with titles, across all genres, which adults of several generations recall with pleasure.  Today, we contemplate the diversified, fragmenting media environment of the present and the future from a basis of decades of the provision of public-service content for children by the established broadcasters.

This is not to undervalue, culturally or — in a general sense — educatively, the children’s content provided more recently by purely commercial channels.  Indeed, there are examples of long-running popular series transferring from an established broadcaster to a more recently arrived commercial channel.  But no investigation, quantitative or qualitative, will fail to demonstrate the scale, range and diversity of children’s content provided by the public-service broadcasters in their heyday.

What do we see as we contemplate the state of public-service media provision for children and young people in the UK in 2021?  Put briefly, we see a significant withering-away of provision, except at the BBC.

To begin with the area closest to my own experience: there is no longer anything that could remotely be described as a schools service at Channel 4. The channel’s licence from Ofcom as it stood in 2004 continued to require that the channel should include in its service:

"at least 330 hours of schools programmes in each calendar year in the Licensing Period… to be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours (as Ofcom may agree)."

The programmes were required to be:

"of high quality and… suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom.’"

The requirement is confirmed in the Annex to the licence:

"…the Corporation shall transmit at least 330 hours of schools programmes in each calendar year of the Licensing Period, excluding presentation material.  These schools programmes will fulfil the needs of the curriculum and will be supported by a full range of appropriate material."
(Channel 4 Licence, Part 2, paragraph 10(1b) and (2); Annex, Part 1, paragraph 4: December 2004)

In the most recent (2020) version of the channel’s licence, the requirement, pursuant to Section 296 of the Communications Act 2003, is that:

"The Corporation shall…ensure that the time allocated to Schools Programmes included in the Channel 4 Service constitutes no less than the total amount of time specified in paragraph 4 of Part 1 of the Annex… The Corporation shall ensure that any Schools Programmes included in the Channel 4 Service are of high quality and are suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom."

So we go to the Annex, and we find:

"The Corporation shall transmit at least half an hour of Schools Programmes, excluding presentation material, in each calendar year of the Licensing Period.  These Programmes need not be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours."
(Channel 4 Licence, attachment to variation number 20, Part 2, paragraph 10(1b) and (2); and Annex, Part 1, paragraph 4: December 2020)

This is shameful.  The suggestion that "at least half an hour of School Programmes" a year (which "need not be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours") will be "suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom" is extraordinary.  It would have been more honest to cancel the service openly.  Clearly, the channel’s management and the regulator came to some kind of agreement to abandon the service in fact, while leaving the scantiest of fig leaves in regulation, for the look of the thing.

The BBC continues to produce programmes for schools.

Similarly, beyond education, although children’s programmes are still to be found on the commercial public-service broadcasters — and I offer no criticisms of their quality — the overall offer from these organisations, taken together, in terms of scale, range and diversity, has shrunk dramatically.

BBC Children’s continues.

It is not a healthy state of affairs that public-service media for children should overwhelmingly be provided by one source.  Ironically, my main argument in support of this assertion is to do with competition: not commercial competition, but competition in quality, in imagination, in innovation.  There is no doubt that such competition keeps participants creatively on their toes.  (Paul Ashton and I were very much on our toes creatively in the friendly rivalry which existed between BBC Schools and Channel 4 Schools when Channel 4 had a schools service.)  And my conversations more widely with children’s producers and commissioning executives in all the public-service broadcasters confirm that assertion.

The limitations of the market

However dramatically the media environment has changed in the nearly 30 years since I joined the world of television, the market alone will not, cannot, properly supply all children’s needs for education, information and entertainment as supplied by electronic media.  My experience in the specialised area of schools media makes that obvious to me.  The same is true of children’s media more widely.  I recognise and welcome many commercial providers’ productions for children.  In the UK and elsewhere, however, some kinds of programming, in particular indigenous live-action dramas and information programmes for children, as well as educational programmes, are not sufficiently attractive to commercial organisations’ balance sheets to make them worth producing.  Yet no one — not the commercial organisations themselves — denies the cultural and experiential value to children of having access to a broad range and rich diversity of media experiences.  Such experiences are an investment in the future.

An example of ‘investment in the future’

This example is current.  As I write, schools across the UK have just re-opened after long periods during which they were closed to all but children of critical workers and those who are vulnerable for other reasons.  The emergency visited on the world by Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on all sections of society, in the UK and across the world, but all the evidence is that socio-economically poorer families have been hit the hardest, and that the children of those families will suffer the worst as a result of the interruption to their education.  This is because they are less likely to have sophisticated equipment to receive educational media in their homes, and less likely to have the quiet spaces conducive to concentrated study.  This has been true for many years: Livingstone et al. (2005) conclude that ‘Middle class children are more likely to have access to the internet at home and to use it.’  With regard to the current situation, a recent medical study notes that ‘for some children the lack of internet, electronic devices, and quiet space at home will further exacerbate inequalities in educational outcomes.’ (Sinha et al., 2020)  All generalisations of this kind are dangerous if applied glibly, but there is truth in them nonetheless.

In these circumstances, what commercial organisation rapidly stepped up to provide educational media, virtually free at the point of use, to — at worst — mitigate the damage done by the closure of schools and — at best — give the pleasure and fulfilment which successful learning affords, even if it does take place in a cramped bedroom or on the corner of a dining table?  The BBC, at short notice, supplied a rich variety of educational media to support home learning.  Now, it may be that it could have done even better than it did, as the UK’s premier public-service media provider, to meet the emergency.  But the key point is that in this crisis a non-market player, a public-service entity, at least did something, and something significant, to rise to the challenge.  And why was the BBC in a position to move as quickly as it did?  Because it has an enviably large library of content, accumulated over many years, paid for by the licence fee.

My numerous contacts over the last year with schoolteachers, school governors and the parents of school-age children have offered me frequent testimony to the value which they have put on the BBC’s recent support for home learning.  A school governor of a rural primary school in England, who has special responsibility for the safeguarding of children who may be at risk, has told me that she is sure that the service has been a life-line in some households where the adults are not confident or competent in undertaking even a modest amount of home education for their children.

In Sum...

To summarise my argument so far:

I welcome the diverse range of providers of content intended to educate, inform and entertain children in the UK;

I have no animus whatever against commercial providers offering such content;

however, as things stand, commercial providers, by the nature of their obligations to shareholders, will not willingly invest in content which is unlikely to pay its way;

therefore, however excellent much of the commercially provided content may be, there are serious gaps in overall provision;

only a non-commercial funding model will guarantee the range and diversity of genres of and contexts for children’s content which children have a right to expect;

I recognise that the maintenance of a place for public-service media for children has become a more complex matter to legislate for and organise, given the proliferation of channels, means of carriage and receiving devices;

so we need to find a model which can live and thrive in this proliferated environment, while continuing to offer to future generations of children the experience which, at its best, the various public-service broadcasters of the past and present — the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C — have offered to yesterday’s children;

it is regrettable that the public-service responsibility for children’s media, including educational media, has largely — not entirely,  I admit — devolved onto one organisation.

What do we do about this?

In order to answer the question effectively, I need briefly to venture beyond the limits of the title of this essay, and to make a proposal about the funding of public-service media generally.

Paying for public-service media

I believe that the licence fee, raised as a quasi-tax and given in its entirety to the BBC, is reaching the end of its useful life as a way of paying for public-service media.  Equally, I vigorously reject the arguments of those who would turn the BBC loose into the commercial world, probably as a subscription service, with customers choosing whether or not to buy into it at various levels of cost.  Often, the ideological nature of these attacks on the current method of funding the BBC is disguised by appeals to technological modernity: ‘In the age of Netflix, how can something as antiquated at the licence fee be justified?’  Behind such arguments stand powerful media and political interests which would like to see the wholesale privatisation of UK broadcasting, as in the USA (where the only exception is PBS, which relies for its continuing existence on the generosity of individuals and wealthy organisations), and the abandonment of UK broadcasters’ obligation to be impartial politically.  The equivalents of Fox News and MSNBC would be born in the UK.

I accept that there are also less ideological voices who would keep the obligation on UK broadcasters to be impartial, but who still think that the licence fee should be scrapped, and replaced by a subscription system.  If this happened, the BBC’s ability to appeal to and serve the whole community in the UK would immediately be savagely reduced, as would its ability to project ’soft power’ across a world increasingly in the control of autocrats with no interest in factually accurate reporting.  Additionally, the BBC has an important responsibility to keep the whole nation informed in cases of national emergency; and it has been doing precisely that as the Covid-19 pandemic has continued.  This responsibility could not be fulfilled under a subscription system, except by some awkward ad-hoc arrangement whereby the government would give the BBC temporary funds to keep the whole population informed when it deemed that a national emergency was at hand.

But the licence fee is imperfect, and its principal imperfection is that it’s regressive: the Duke of Westminster pays the same amount to access BBC services as does someone on the minimum wage.  The argument against funding the BBC from direct taxation is the old one about the corporation not being a state broadcaster: it should have the right to challenge and criticise the government without risking its funds being cut off.  But the licence fee is effectively a tax, imposed after a conversation between the government and the BBC every 15 years.  I don’t see that a hypothecated tax, raised by other means, needs to compromise the BBC’s independence from government.  It could be imposed either as a specified addition to income tax or to Council Tax.  In either case, there is a degree of progressivism: obvious in the case of an addition to income tax; less obvious but still there in the case of an addition to Council Tax, which is banded according to the rateable value of property.

So my proposal for a replacement of the licence fee would be a hypothecated tax, attached either to income tax or to Council Tax.

Public-service funding for children’s media spread across the board

I would set the rate of the tax so that it raises a little more money — between 5% and 10% more — than the licence fee does at the moment.  The great majority of these funds — at least 90% — would go to the BBC, ensuring that it continues to be funded to at least its present level.  But an amount beyond the BBC’s share would go to other media providers, whether those who retain public-service status (ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C) or straightforwardly commercial organisations, for the commissioning of public-service content in a group of specified areas, including children’s media other than media for schools.

Why "other than media for schools", given my earlier remarks about the abandonment of the Channel 4 schools service?  Simply because that lamentable situation can easily be rectified: Ofcom should once again require Channel 4 to have a high-quality schools service at meaningful scale.  Demand for educational programming has been demonstrated in the past: in the loyalty conversion rates for Teachers TV (McMahon, 2008) and in teacher accounts of its value (Tanner, 2006); while evidence for demand for the continuation of TV provision by the BBC and Channel 4 in the face of alternative online provision is well-documented in the longer history of programming for schools (e.g. Moss, 2000; Chien, 1999).  Ofcom’s extensive consultation on the state and future of public-service media shows that today’s audiences value its distinctive content highly, including educational provison (Ofcom, 2020).  Current demand has increased due to the coronavirus pandemic, leading — as I have described above — to the BBC’s rapid expansion in provision of both online and broadcast resources, with a marked shift to television to offset limited access to broadband and devices (BBC, 2021), a trend against the longer-term decline in general broadcast viewing (Ofcom, 2019).

With regard to children’s media other than provision for schools, an expert commissioning group, taking account of the BBC’s offer in this area, would agree where overall provision was lacking or where creative competition would enhance that provision, would invite bids from organisations other than the BBC to produce content to meet those needs, and would oversee production.  With the help of a non-executive board, it would judge the quality and the take-up of the content so provided.  "Take-up" of course means reception across the full range of platforms and receiving devices to which children and young people have access.

Fortunately, such an expert commissioning group already exists.  The Young Audiences Content Fund, based at the British Film Institute, is currently funding a wide range of content and development in children’s media.  It has a budget of £57 million for a three-year pilot, funded by some unused licence fee money originally earmarked for a digital project at the BBC.  It is headed by a former executive at BBC Children’s.  To quote from its website, the YACF:

"supports the creation of distinctive, high-quality content for audiences up to the age of 18...  Production and development awards will contribute to the funding of programmes, shown on television and online platforms, that have public-service broadcasting values in live-action and animation and across all genres.  We are looking for content that entertains, informs and reflects the experiences of children and young people growing up in the UK today."

These ambitions and this expertise are exactly what we need longer-term.  The YACF, its personnel expanded if necessary, funded by its share of the hypothecated tax, could be charged with seeing that public-service media for children and young people in the UK, supplied by numerous providers alongside the BBC, has a thriving future.

In conclusion

I conclude with the thought that when the UK sported two and then three, four and five public-service broadcasters, in a technologically relatively simple world, those broadcasters’ offer to children and young people in the areas of education, information and entertainment was the envy of much of the rest of the world.  There is no reason, in today’s and tomorrow’s technologically relatively complex world, why that excellence should not be maintained, if the right policy decisions are taken.  Those who serve children’s and young people’s media needs and choices retain both the necessary talent and the underlying passion for the task.



BBC News (2021) ‘Lockdown Learning: What educational resources are on TV, iPlayer and online?’ Accessed 11.3.21 at

Chien, M-Y. (1999) ‘The Contribution of the Characteristics of Schools Programmes to their Use in English Primary Schools’. Journal of Educational Media, Volume 24(3).

Livingstone, S., Bober, M. and Helsper, E. (2005) Inequalities and the digital divide in children and young people's internet use: findings from the UK Children Go Online project. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.

McMahon, A. (2008) Teachers TV: Education Analysis Report. London: DCMS.

Moss, R. (2000) ‘Closing a window on the world: Convergence and UK television services for schools’.  Cultural Trends, Volume 10(40).

Ofcom (2019) Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report 2019. London: Ofcom.

Ofcom (2020) Small Screen: Big Debate – Consultation: The Future of Public Service Media. London: Ofcom.

Sinha, I., Bennett, D. and Taylor-Robinson, D. (2020) ‘Children are being side-lined by Covid-19’. theBMJ (369). Accessed 12.3.21 at

Tanner, R. (2006) ‘Unexpected Outcomes from Teachers' TV’. Mathematics Teaching Incorporating Micromath, number 199, pp. 28-30.



I thank Andrew Burn and Anna Home for significant improvements and additions to this essay.


March 2021

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By John Richmond

John Richmond has spent a lifetime working in education and television, both as a teacher and a Commissioning Editor for schools programming for Channel 4 television. He helped to set up the Children’s Television Trust International and was one of the organisers of the second ever global children’s media conference in London.

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