Ministers want BBC to bring schoolwork into the home if swine flu absences rise

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THE BBC could be asked to clear its schedules to make way for educational programmes if schools have to close due to swine flu, it has emerged.

Ministers are understood to have had discussions with BBC officials as part of "contingency planning" for the pandemic.

Discussions have centred around government moves to invoke a clause in the BBC's agreement which states that, in the case of an emergency, the government has the power to make the BBC broadcast another announcement or programme than that scheduled.

However, the proposal has attracted strong criticism, with one BBC source saying such action would be "tantamount to a government takeover".

The insider also claimed the clause did not give the government the right to direct programming.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "The government drew up plans to deal with a flu pandemic more than 18 months ago which give indications for contingency plans, including online learning and discussions with broadcasters including the BBC and Teachers TV."

Since the pandemic was declared, ministers have begun those discussions, she said.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) at Westminster has said that, while it expects schools and nurseries to reopen as usual in September, they "cannot be certain what the situation will be", so some closures may be possible.

A spokesman said they were looking at contingency plans in the event of school closures.

The Scottish Government has also said there are no current plans to keep schools closed after the summer holidays finish next month.

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Throughout the year, the BBC always looks carefully at its available audiences and, as with holiday periods for example, it may be appropriate to run a similar schedule for children depending on how long the schools are closed.

"While it would be impractical to make new educational TV programmes in the time available, we would look at whether programmes of an educational or informative nature could interest children who are not at school."

A DCSF spokesman said: "We strongly expect schools to reopen as normal in September. We are, of course, looking at a range of contingency plans.

"However, there is no suggestion we would ever 'force' an organisation to assist in delivering education."

Andrew Jones, a former BBC senior manager and head of journalism at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said: "I certainly wouldn't describe rescheduling programmes as being tantamount to a government takeover. However, the idea of such a move is somewhat unprecedented.

"The BBC has always had plans for all sorts of emergencies but this all sounds dramatic and rather implies we are heading towards a state of emergency."

Mr Jones said that if an agreement was reached, the BBC would be able to cope with the demands, but that programme content might not be new.

"On a practical level for school pupils it would be difficult to provide anything of great value at such short notice. I think it would also be difficult to make children watch these programmes rather than YouTube."

Yesterday it also emerged that guidance from Westminster advises child-minders and nurseries to take communal soft toys away from children to stop the spread of swine flu. It adds that hard toys should be cleaned after use.

Sharing pencils, crayons and musical instruments should also be discouraged, and school assemblies avoided in the case of a pandemic, it says.