A-Level Media Studies should be made compulsory


2:25 pm - January 21st 2013

by Robert Sharp    


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The Daily Mail reports that state schools are ‘failing to equip’ pupils for leading universities. 

While private schools funnel their pupils into ‘facilitating subjects’ like Mathematics and English Literature…

Figures show that state school pupils are significantly more likely than their privately-educated counterparts to take A-level subjects which are less valued by universities, such as media studies, performance studies and dance.

First, it is very worrying that a small group of research led univesities can dictate what subjects ‘matter’. (h/t education researcher Tom Richmond).

Second, Media Studies be on the list of ‘facilitating subjects’, and yet it is not.

This weekend, we discovered that The Sun has been manufacturing stories to suit its ideological ends, while other newspapers pretend to interview people they have not. 

The Leveson Inquiry just exposed some of the shocking complicity between news organisations, the politicians and the police, yet it continues unabated.  The impact of celebrity culture, and the unhealthy body images marketed to us by the media, are perennial concerns.  Arguments about free expression or political correctness are everywhere. 

Some crucial democratic issues (such as the blacklisting of unionised workers) are suspiciously under-reported.  We complain constantly about the priorities the broadcasters give to different stories in their daily programmes:  Snow disruption, or the conflict in Mali?

Moreover, eeverything we know (or think we know) about the things that matter, is funnelled to us through the media organisations.  Even social networks are filtered for us, presenting us with the news and views that they think want to hear (the better to advertise to us). 

It is essential that citizens are media literate enough to understand how the information we receive reaches our eyeballs.  It is crucial that we are skeptical and savvy enough to question the news organisations that claim to serve us.

I took exclusively ‘facilitating subjects’ at A level, and never had the opportunity to choose Media Studies. I wish I had.  Let’s make sure the next generation does not suffer from the same educational deficit.  Media literacy is as essential to our democracy as basic numeracy.  It should be a compulsory subject in our schools.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments


Judging by the Media Studies university graduates I have come across, this is one of the most useless subjects to be taught.

For the additional hour or two of Media Studies, which subject do you want to scrap?

Judging by the Media Studies university graduates I have come across, this is one of the most useless subjects to be taught.

Surely by emphasising the importance of Media Studies, or even considering it a ‘facilitating subject’, would help improve the quality of tution (if it is as bad as you say).

3. Luis Enrique

it is very worrying that a small group of research led universities can dictate what subjects ‘matter’.

if “what subjects matter” is defined as “what subjects good universities care about” – which seems to be case here – then what you lament is true by definition.

I think you misunderstand what “facilitating” means. Maths can be applied to engineering, economics, sociology and yes maybe even media studies itself could have quantitative elements. Good writing skills apply most everywhere.

Media studies maybe worthwhile, but they do not impart a transferable skill that can be applied elsewhere. I agree it’s worth knowing how media outlets operate, and thinking about what happens on social networks etc. But how does studying these matters equip a student for university?

here is a worthy facilitating subject that, sadly, appears to be gaining little traction

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/18/critical-thinking-slump-in-students

You want an A-Level in one of the most derided degree courses around?

It’s articles like this that really do make me wonder if LibCon is a satire.

If you had called for more investment in basic core education to prepare children for university (or better, education so that school leavers don’t need a university education to fix the failings of secondary schools), you’d have practically everyone supporting you – but media studies? Seriously?

Using computers and accessing the web stress literacy and numeracy skills, which have much greater priority than media studies. Try this report on adult literacy from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2006:

“Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the [HoC] Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4642396.stm

“Media Studies be on the list”, “Moreover, eeverything we know”

I assume English was not among your choices*.

There is no need for young people to do media studies, they will have grown up with new media and be very comfortable with it.

* I bet I’ll get hit by Muphry for this.

While I’m not convinced A-Level Media Studies should be compulsory, Rob is absolutely right that a decent media education should be at the heart of what children are taught at schools. The idea that people growing with social media will by some method of osmosis just ‘get it’ is completely false – for one social media and news media are two completely different things. Our lives are so mediated now – through social media and ‘the news’ yes but also through advertising, advertorial, celebrity endorsement and PR and you don’t just learn how to question that. Most people who read the Sun (or any broadsheet for that matter) don’t appreciate that they’re being sold a line, that the journalist who wrote, the sub that edited it and the editor that commissioned it all have a bias, and have compulsions outside of just telling the story in a neutral manner. I’m not suggesting that most (or indeed more than a few) members of the news media have ulterior motives, just that they don’t operate in a vacuum. Our understanding of history, of science, of statistics, of poltiics, etc etc is all mediated and it’s pointless to teach one without the other.

Oh, and Luis Enrique you’ve fallen for the common fallacy that Oxbridge style research heavy institutions are automatically ‘better’ than others.

The net result of my having done media studies at GCSE level is that I can’t watch adverts without becoming unreasonably angry as the condescending fucks try to con me into buying shit I don’t want nor need.

10. Chaise Guevara

With you in principle, but I think we should expand it to also cover things like critical thinking and, most vitally, statistics. Obviously stats come under maths, but this would be more about how to tell if statistics are being presented honestly: is percentage being conflated with percentage points, that sort of thing.

We should have an hour a week for things like changing car tyres and bleeding radiators, too.

11. Luis Enrique

Will_full

no, I don’t.

either these “leading universities” – however you wish to define them – prefer maths and english to media studies, or they do not. If they do not, then the OP has nothing to complain about. If they do, then they “dictate what subjects matter” by definition.

12. Luis Enrique

Although I note that Tom Richmond actually wrote:

“V alarming that *all* students being advised which A-levels to take on basis of what one group of research-led unis recommend”

that would indeed be very alarming. it would make much more sense if students intending to go to a research-led uni choose their A levels accordingly, and students hoping to go elsewhere acted accordingly. For example, I’m under the impression that Farnham Film School is particularly good, but it’s not a research-led uni and taking Maths, Chemistry and Physics would probably be a bad move for aspiring film makers.

The gist of this seems to be the usual moan that the media don’t slant things the way you would like them to be slanted. Sorry I meant ‘report objectively’, obviously, because who could ever possibly work anything out for themselves without the head of campaigns at PEN to guide the way for them ?

You want an A-Level in one of the most derided degree courses around?

But why are subjects like media studies so derided?

It’s not as if they don’t provide a potential entry point to an economically viable career. Depending on the particular route you take through such a course, you could go to work in film, television, radio, print journalism, advertising, marketing, PR, new media, etc – all very large industries for all that some are in a bit a state of flux at the moment.

It is because, perhaps, media studies is not considered to be sufficiently academic or intellectually demanding?

If so then that’s just misplaced intellectual snobbery.

I should declare a bit of an interest here. A couple of year back when my son was in the 6th form, a timetabling clash left him casting around for an AS level to fill up his contact time and only subject he showed any interest in, in the slot he needed to fill, was Film Studies. Not only did he end up enjoying the subject immensely – and getting an ‘A’ at the end of it – but to give you an idea of the kind of material he was study, amongst the work the work he had to produce for assessment was:

– an open technical essay on the direction, editing and cinematography of a short scene from a film, for which he chose to analyse the spaceship exploration sequence from Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’,

– an essay on script writing in British film, for which he studied ‘Shallow Grave’, and

– an essay on narrative structures in film-making for which he took on Del Toro’s ‘Pan Labyrinth’.

And that’s on top of studying the economic and financial aspect of film-making as an industry.

Now is any of that really less demanding or academic than hacking out the same tired old formulaic essays on Shakespeare, Jane Austin and Charles Dickens that thousands of students do every year when studying English Literature?

Of course not – not least for the fact that my son had to analyse Pan’s Labyrinth for himself rather than base his essay on the margin notes from a study edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

If you’re looking for a degree worthy of derision for its lack of economic worth, in particular, then I’d suggest you take a close look at ‘Classic’ where, according to the University sector’s own statistics, around 85% of graduates go one to become Classics teachers.

If ever there was a perfect example of self-fulfilling intellectual snobbery than reading Classics at an Oxbridge college is it.

but I think we should expand it to also cover things like critical thinking and, most vitally, statistics

I’ve been arguing for some time that we should ditch religious education as a mandatory subject, pre-GCSE, and replace it with a much broader humanities/social science curriculum which would include comparative religious studies alongside aspects of philosophy and social science, including critical thinking and logic.

It is, when you think about it, bizarre that we insist on religious education from age of five but can’t seem to find any place at all on the curriculum to even introduce the likes of Hume, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith and others.

16. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 Unity

“It is because, perhaps, media studies is not considered to be sufficiently academic or intellectually demanding?”

It’s because it sounds modern and it wasn’t around when middle-aged people were in school, therefore it can’t possibly be of any use and wasn’t built to last.

Seriously, I think that’s why.

There is bad teaching and bad course content for some media studies course, but you can also say the same of history. Just make sure secondary teaching of media studies is of a decent standard.

For those who deride it as a mickey mouse subject, just what is so mickey mouse about semiotics? I find it quite challenging.

I’ve been arguing for some time that we should ditch religious education as a mandatory subject, pre-GCSE, and replace it with a much broader humanities/social science curriculum which would include comparative religious studies alongside aspects of philosophy and social science, including critical thinking and logic.

I had no compulsory RE instruction at secondary school and instead had a non-examined class that broadly replaced Englidh literature and History GCSE, but also took in theology and philosophy.
http://www.winchestercollege.org/division

@ 14 Unity. Agreed. One of the ironies about subjects like Drama, Media Studies and Sociology is the number of ‘leading’ Russell group universities that actually teach them (allied to the fact that Oxbridge doesn’t).

What I find rather strange about all this is the peculiar way that so many people seem to have stumbled across the dreadful truth that the media have agendas, make stuff up and don’t always give an entirely accurate account of events. What’s new ? Most people are well aware of this and don’t take everything they read, see or hear as gospel and generally tend to regard the media a source of entertainment. Worse still, I have to tell you, most people are only looking for confirmation of pre – existing opinions when they pick up their daily paper or turn on the TV. Which is why media studies is a bit of a non subject really, I can see that some people find it interesting but that’s not a good enough reason in itself to have it as a compulsory A level subject. It’s a hobby not an essential aspect of learning.

Politics is the language of priorities. Before we push media studies at A-level, shouldn’t we worry more about there being nearly a million 16-24 year olds who are not in education, employment or training?

The challenges of developing literacy and numeracy skills in primary school leavers aren’t receding:

“The National Curriculum test results also revealed that in spite of an improvement in English and maths, more than a third of pupils still left primary school without a proper grasp of the basics in reading, writing and maths.” [FT August 2010]
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ba881948-9f3f-11df-8732-00144feabdc0.html

It is, when you think about it, bizarre that we insist on religious education from age of five but can’t seem to find any place at all on the curriculum to even introduce the likes of Hume, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith and others.

Depends on whether you think education is intended to benefit children (and society) or people in authority. Can’t have people growing up on a diet of Mill and going around questioning interferences with people’s freedom.

19

Anthony Giddens taught sociology at Cambridge for a number of years.

@15 Unity

“It is, when you think about it, bizarre that we insist on religious education from age of five but can’t seem to find any place at all on the curriculum to even introduce the likes of Hume, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith and others.”

Quite so, and we see the consequences all around us!

25. Northern Worker

I would agree provided an A-level in English is taken at the same time. I can’t see the point of media studies if the student is illiterate. And the present standard of writing and spelling is dreadful. I despair when I see it’s and its mixed up, or there and their, etc.

Don’t get me started!

23

“Anthony Giddens taught sociology at Cambridge for a number of years.”

Even before Anthony Giddens moved to Cambridge from Leicester to teach sociology, John Goldthorpe was teaching sociology at Oxford. A little googling will retrieve information about present provision for teaching the subject at Oxford and at Cambridge as well as recent course reading lists for any who feel inclined to read up the subject.

There are many more important social educational priorities than pushing for A-level media studies.

I’ve mentioned basic literacy and numeracy skills for one. Another is helping pensioners to learn how to access the internet and to send and receive emails. Doing that ought to be a regular task for those local authority libraries with PCs for residents to use. IMO hands-on experience is a far more effective way of learning how to use computers than lending pensioners computer manuals to read when they have no computer in front of them.

“Elderly people risk being alienated in society as the spread of online social networking threatens to leave them ‘disfranchised’, the Government’s chief scientist has warned.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9815824/Elderly-people-disfranchised-by-social-networking.html

28. gastro george

It seems to me that there is an elephant in the room here, which is the difference between education and training. Much “education” these days is more the latter than the former. Teaching to the test, and remembering answers, is only training. Real education (which includes critical thinking) teaches you how to learn and how to evaluate what to trust and what not to. Once you learn how to learn, you’re set up for life.

Thanks for the comments, folks, particularly Falco @ 6 who pointed out some spelling errors. Perhaps if I had done Media Studies at college they would have taught me the importance of sub-editing and proof reading.

“Media literacy is as essential to our democracy as basic numeracy. It should be a compulsory subject in our schools.”

The man’s mad. Quite mad …

“Media literacy is as essential to our democracy as basic numeracy. It should be a compulsory subject in our schools.”

We can add it when our school system shows that it can competently teach numeracy then.

If anything A-Level English should be compulsory. But Media Studies… seriously?

As a media communications undergraduate in my final year, while I disagree with the ill-informed opinion floating through these comments that media studies is useless, I do not feel it should be a compulsory A-level subject.

Typical media studies degrees are divided in to practical and theoretical, giving students ample choice as to the route they pursue. However, media as an A-level is, at present, a rather poor mix of the two. Much of the time is spent either learning out-dated theory in a pathetically simplistic fashion or watching films or TV shows without much direction from a teacher as to what the significance of doing so is. The rest of the time is spent on practical projects, and although this is a good opportunity for young people to discover hidden talents, the truth is many media teachers have become complacent (most are either English or IT teachers foisted over) and don’t take the time to guide the students through these projects.

Media theory degrees teach a unique mix of political theory, media law, journalism practice, sociology, and modern PR and communication design, all offered by experienced academics and industry professionals and all critical to have knowledge of for one to work in a media environment. However, having these grand topics condensed to 1/4 or less of a 16-18 year old’s volunteer education will not do anyone any favours.

This is not to say, however, that media as a subject should continue to be devalued; the author rightly alludes to the problem of a generation growing up in an explicitly mediated environment without the proper education to understand the social and cultural issues arising from this. But media A-level in its present state will not tackle this, and suggesting that ‘media literacy’ be compulsory will be as much a challenge to implement for many under-performing pupils as learning a foreign or programming language is.

Of course media studies should not passed off as an easy subject for young people with low aspirations (as I was consistently reminded by peers and teachers alike during my time at college), and of course it should be taught properly and effectively, but so should every other seemingly subordinate subject. The argument here should be for a greater recognition that all education matters in equal measure, not that one subject should be elevated above all others because of politicized events over the last two years.

34. Chaise Guevara

@ 20 Thornavis

“What I find rather strange about all this is the peculiar way that so many people seem to have stumbled across the dreadful truth that the media have agendas, make stuff up and don’t always give an entirely accurate account of events.”

What’s giving you the impression that “so many people” have only just now realised this fact?

“Worse still, I have to tell you, most people are only looking for confirmation of pre – existing opinions when they pick up their daily paper or turn on the TV.”

Well, that’s another thing you could teach people if you expanded this idea beyond media studies. Learning about confirmation bias gives you at least some defence against it.

35. domestic extremist

“It is crucial that we are skeptical and savvy enough to question the news organisations that claim to serve us.”

True enough, but we also need to have the perspective that in a democracy the media should be owned and controlled by ordinary citizens and run in their interests, not in the interests of the hyper-rich, the big corporations or the political class. Consequently, part of media education needs to be examining alternative patterns of media ownership and editorial policy formation.

36. Shatterface

There is no need for young people to do media studies, they will have grown up with new media and be very comfortable with it.

A lot of people grow up with the ability to talk – yet we still teach them English.

The problem’s not that we teach Media Studies – it’s that we teach Media Studies badly. For one thing, if people commenting on the supposed ‘effects’ of the media had actually read empirical studies they wouldn’t be trotting out hysterical bullshit about body image.

I took media studies as part of my Sociology and Psychology degree and much of the psychology and sociology you find in media studies text books is risible. Its the only discipline apart from Literature where people still cite Freud, Marx and their desciples with a straight face.

It’s vital that people understand the media in all its complexity: to do that Media Studies has to be grounded in contemporary knowledge of cognitive psychology, linguistics, ethnography and economics rather than cargo cult ‘sciences’ inherited from the prehistory of current social sciences.

37. Shatterface

Politics is the language of priorities. Before we push media studies at A-level, shouldn’t we worry more about there being nearly a million 16-24 year olds who are not in education, employment or training?

By that logic we should stop teaching any degrees until everyone else can read and write.

38. Steve haynes

Everything you get from media Studies that’s worthwhile is also taught ( and taught in a more useful way) in History.

You know, source analysis, critical thinking which is basically what you’re arguing for here.

“Everything you get from media Studies that’s worthwhile is also taught ( and taught in a more useful way) in History.”

But is that History as officially approved by Michael Gove?

I mean, does it include the nasty bits like the controversy over lose or tight packing of the slaves in the trans-Atlantic crossings, the Opium Wars over the inalienable right of British traders to sell opium to the Chinese in China, or General Dyer and the Amritsar massacre in 1918?

Try JWM Turner’s painting of The Slave Ship: “J. M. W. Turner was inspired to paint ‘The Slave Ship’ in 1840 after reading ‘The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade’ by Thomas Clarkson. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Slave_Ship

History doesn’t seem a very safe subject to teach in schools. Much better to do something technical where there are no nasty, challenging moral issues. Soviet education maintained robust standards in maths and the physical sciences. It was when it got to literature, history, genetics and political economy that things got really wobbly.

I have had this argument many times, and rarely have an opponent who has any experience or knowledge of what a media studies course is. Andrew Marr once exposed himself as ignorant when, after attacking the subject in print, he was asked which media studies books he had recently read. He had to admit, ‘nothing comes to mind’. It’s a quite worrying illustration of how editors, journalists and rent-a-gobs can communicate their ignorance.

Transferable skills: critical thinking, identify (in)appropriate evidence, evaluate arguments, team work, independent working, group management, written presentation, verbal presentation…

There are plenty of bad courses out there. I was bullied out of one FE college (one of those trying to do HE, but with a FE mentality) when I tried to make a module more appropriate for an undergraduate level. Those weak students didn’t want to concern themselves with the inconvenience of reading, and it was me, the hourly-paid tutor, who was shown the door. The problem here is the infrastructure, not the subject.

But, we know the dangers of generalisation. There are plenty of committed, highly-intelligent media students and graduates. There should be more, but giving power to students to exclude things that are ‘boring’ is not the way forward.

I agree with the need for general SocSci/humanities/media education. Expect it to be criticised, though. Anything that challenges dominant discourses will be attacked, itself having dominant discourses against it.

I seek enlightenment. Is there a difference between a Media Studies degree and a Computer Science degree and, if so, what is it?

There is certainly continuing evidence of a shortage of computer skills in the labour market – in America as well here – but will that shortage be alleviated by graduates with Media Studies degrees? Somehow, I don’t think so.

I don’t think any subject should be compulsory at a-level/whatever they are called now, although academically able students should be encouraged towards the sciences and IT.

However I think there are basically 4 core subjects that should be taught from 5 to 16, with no opt outs. Maths, English, IT, and a humanities/social science curriculum that covers the stuff unity referred to. We should also introduce second languages at a far younger age (making it optional only at 14) given the benefits of billingualism on other educational matters.

@Bob B

Computer science is a field that concerns itself with the study of computation (not computers as such), and so encompasses much in the fields of both philosophy and mathematics, as well as many of its own areas of study.

If you want to teach people how to use computers, that has absolutely nothing to do with computer science. The name is very misleading.

James C

Thanks for the illumination.

Will media studies A-levels and degrees help to alleviated the reported shortages of computer skillsin the jobs market or do the shortages relate rather to requirements for computer science graduates?

As best I can gather, a lot of folk learn(ed) how to use computers by teaching themselves. In the mid 1980s, the BBC Acorn computer started off many youngsters on the road to a career in computing but young starters nowadays seem to focus on web surfing or playing video games with none of the coding that used to go on in bedrooms. The news reports I read last year about Rasberry, a computer on a card, looked like a welcome attempt to turn the clock back to where we were but I’ve not read much since:

The hope of Britain’s future computer science industry is gathered around a tiny device in a school classroom in Cambridgeshire.

The pupils of Chesterton Community College ICT class have been invited to road-test the long-awaited Raspberry Pi computer.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17192823

The connections between maths and philosophy with computer science look challenging. I’ve mentioned before reading a piece in The Economist back in the late 1980s about the subsequent careers of philosophy PhDs in American universities where the annual output exceeded academic vacancies. As reported, the philosophy PhDs were disproportionately going into the then young computer industry where their skills in analysis and logic were especially appreciated.

45. MonkeyBot 5000

“It is crucial that we are skeptical and savvy enough to question the news organisations that claim to serve us.”

I studied maths, physics and chemistry A-levels so I really don’t see what extra skepticism or analytical skill you think I’d have received from a compulsory media studies course. Those subjects also gave me the numeracy required to see when statistics are being used

If someone needs to do a media studies course to realise that the media might display bias, they’re going to have trouble making it through any A-level. Anyone who’s ever been into a news agent can see that different newspapers report the exact same events with wildly different interpretations.

We don’t need a new A-level for this – it’s a 90-minute talk and a leaflet to take home at best.

46. MonkeyBot 5000

*when statistics are being misused.

47. Chaise Guevara

@ 45 MonkeyBot

“If someone needs to do a media studies course to realise that the media might display bias, they’re going to have trouble making it through any A-level. Anyone who’s ever been into a news agent can see that different newspapers report the exact same events with wildly different interpretations.”

Explaining that bias exists isn’t the issue. It’s about informing people about the underhand techniques used to mislead. Along with statistics misuse, you’ve got weasel words, photoshopping, selective reporting etc.

“We don’t need a new A-level for this – it’s a 90-minute talk and a leaflet to take home at best.”

You might be right here though.

In the news on Wednesday:

Computer science is going to become part of the English Baccalaureate – one of the measures used in school league tables in England.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21261442


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