The joys of watching TV at school in the 1980s and 1990s

In today’s interconnected world, the joys of watching video clips in a classroom environment seems run-of-the-mill. Today’s teachers, lecturers and trainers can turn to YouTube or other video streaming channels for educational films.

Up until recently, television programmes for schools were a thing. As part of their public service remit, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Independent Television (ITV) allocated some of its airtime to Television for Schools. Open University was an extension of that premise via Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. Apart from the usual jokes about sartorial preferences, the OU’s television and radio programmes brought Higher Education to a much wider audience through its distance learning courses. What was years before its time under the auspices of Jennie Lee and successors is run-of-the-mill, today thanks to e-learning.

Before the noughties, schools programmes went out at similar times to school hours. BBC Two’s output had two blocks, morning and afternoon. ITV’s output went out from 9.30 am to 12.00 pm. To accommodate its new daytime schedule of quiz shows and chat, ITV Schools’ output was taken over by Channel Four.

Whereas the BBC did its own schools programming, each of ITV’s franchises (except London Weekend Television) mucked in. Yorkshire Television meant How We Used To Live and My World. Thames Television was noted for Middle English. With Central Television, Junior Maths with that space-age theme tune by Ron Geesin (graphics by Stuart Kettle). ATV – as well as its successors, Central – meant Good Health and Stop, Look, Listen. As for Granada Television, often Chemistry In Action or Picture Box with David Barlow off Coronation Street.

Whether we heard the dulcet tones of Sue Robbie on Chemistry in Action or Cosmo and Dibs on You and Me, we lapped it up. Some of us did before the television was wheeled in front of us.

The Television Cometh

What, might you ask is A Proper Schools Television Set? A 32″ flatscreen thing that can be placed in lieu of a digital whiteboard? An Amstrad Televideo from the late 1980s? One of these 1990s Sony things with a discreet deck for the VHS video recorder?

For many people of a certain age, A Proper Schools Television Set would have been built like a tank. It would have wood effect doors and an integrated anti-glare hood. As for a remote control, no chance. Typically, the trolley would be four feet high – tall enough to stop infant school children from playing with the colour, balance, volume, channel, and tone settings. The classic model would have a pilot light at the bottom right underneath the set itself on a wooden shelf and have 12 preset buttons.

On arrival into the school’s assembly hall, the children’s faces would light up. If you’re lucky, there would have been a coaxial socket by the piano or portrait of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Even luckier, if a Child of the 1980s, if it came with a video cassette recorder which meant movie time.

Counting Out Time

In the days before VCRs, DVDs, BluRays and streaming services were king, teachers had to rely on the schedules. This meant a copy of the Radio Times and the TV Times in the staff room, or The Guardian‘s Education section. Alternatively, they could write to the Education Officer of their local ITV franchise for a more comprehensive listings guide. In later years, this included factsheets and software (which in my academic years meant the BBC Model B, Acorn Archimedes or Research Machines Nimbus PC computer systems).

Prior to the programme, teachers had to make sure their classes were in the school hall or TV room before the programme. Better still, no later than a minute beforehand. The first thing that teachers and children would see before the programme was the countdown marker and continuity.

Here’s how the BBC did it in the 1980s.

Meanwhile on the other side in 1985, ITV’s contribution via Central Television’s graphics and sound department. The music is Sunny Standby and Clockwise by Johnny Patrick (composer of the theme tune for Bullseye).

By 1992, five years into Channel Four’s stint as the provider of ITV Schools’ programming. The music is Just A Minute by Brian Bennett (late of The Shadows).

After the countdown sequences, this would be followed by an announcement for teachers – often details of spin-off learning resources. Once that was out of the way, it was over to our favourite programme.

How We Used To Live (ITV/Yorkshire Television): classic historical series covering the 20th century.
You and Me (BBC Two) with the excellent UB40 version of its theme music.
Stop, Look, Listen (ITV/ATV): Chris Tarrant’s other most famous programme of the late 1970s.
Words and Pictures (BBC Two): for some viewers, the opening titles and Paddy Kingsland’s theme music may remind you of Threads. Apart from that, you might want to put the heating on with this chilling episode.

Personal recollections

Throughout my academic years, the way we watched our favourite telly programmes has changed dramatically. When I started school, breakfast television and any form of Teletext service was a novelty with the latter out of reach for some households. When I finished school, 40 channels instead of four became the norm.

My early recollections of schools television was, believe it or not, just before I started school. The Selbys’ story in How We Used To Live was on the telly box at Chez Vall in 1983 and at Chez Nan. After I started school, the first programme I remember watching was BBC Two’s Thinkabout. That was at infant school – in the TV room (well, just a repurposed store room next to the library by the school assembly hall with its green carpet). The first thing I remembered was the catchy theme tune, though not the rest of the programme.

Thinkabout was an offshoot of Look and Read, whose spin-offs include The Boy From Space, Badger Girl, Geordie Racer, and Words and Pictures. By 1986, I watched Words and Pictures in the intimate confines of Class 9 at Yew Tree Primary School. Then Badger Girl, which was watched by more advanced readers like myself at seven years old.

As for ITV’s schools programmes, none other than Stop, Look, Listen – and, believe it or not – an episode on trains. This was enjoyed with a few other members of the First Group on the first floor of Ewing School’s residential block. By the 1990s, I would become au fait with Granada Television’s and Yorkshire Television’s science programmes. Courtesy of Messrs Everard and Hayes, Chemistry In Action and Scientific Eye respectively. Both solid programmes, seen in front of a modest sized television and video installation on a smaller trolley. At certain points in the video, we were encouraged to take down notes and create an account of what we saw that Monday Morning in S5, full view of the Engage Brain Before Putting Mouth In Gear sign.

I for one was fascinated by their approach to the subject; how Granada’s secondary school programmes were serious yet engaging – sometimes with minimal graphics. Also the graphics of Yorkshire Television’s Scientific Eye and wondered why they had a Zokko-style pinball machine for reaching each subject. As for music, Ron Geesin‘s theme tune from Junior Maths was legendary. Combined with Stuart Kettle’s graphics and Fred Harris’ narration, a winning combination.

The joys of watching a film on the school television set…

Though watching Stop, Look, Listen on the school telly was a treat, the real icing on the cake was its end of term time use. Thanks to video cassette recorders being more affordable, it was possible to show proper films in front of 200 or so children.

From a school television set, I remember seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the junior school hall, before the October half term break. Then at Ewing School, Bedknobs and Broomsticks one year, then Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom another year – both in the school hall. Sometimes, the school’s audio visual room would be used for showing schools television programmes and films, because it had tiered benches.

…and an unsuccessful Royal Wedding

Sometimes, the school telly would be wheeled out for important events. Like Royal Weddings or Space Shuttle launches. Shortly before I left infant school for junior school, we were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see the Royal Wedding of Sarah Ferguson and (the then Prince) Andrew Windsor. As I was indifferent to the wedding itself, the real star of the show for me wasn’t the big school telly. It was the ice cream van and the 99 Flake that we all had in the assembly hall.

Before I go…

Do you have any memories of the school telly? Did your heart skip a beat when your teacher wheeled the set into your classroom or the assembly hall? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 02 February 2022.

3 thoughts on “Do You Remember… When The School Telly Was Wheeled Into The Hall or Classroom?

  1. I also remember the portable TV from when I was at Primary School and I also at times it used throw it’s own problems in the time that it would take the teacher to fiddle with it to try and tune it in to the correct channel while trying to control the class in the meantime.

    As for programs I remember being at School and watching Ziz-Zag on BBC about the Norman Conquest and 1066 and also Look and Read like you said, first Look and Read series I remember watching was Dark Towers and then I think Boy from Space.

    Also who remembers the music that used to be played before the Schools Programs on BBC such corkers such as Bart by Ruby and some other electro-synth music, usually by Roger Roger in fact if I remember what used to be played before a Schools program on BBC used to depend on who the Schools Program was actually aimed at.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. During my school time in the 70’s, Friday afternoon was film time. Everyone would go to the gym and we would watch a few files, usually documentary, cartoon and then a main feature. I think the documentary was there to classify it as an education afternoon, personally I think it was all a time for the teachers to get ready for the weekend.


  3. I’m trying to find the music that was played between the programs. One in particular played on a flute. I’m sure it was. Any ideas how to find it?


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