Time to take a wider view

24th October 1997, 1:00am


Time to take a wider view

Study the following 30-second film extract closely. How effectively does it create a feeling of suspense? Your answer should include annotated quotations from the film and, if necessary, re-edited sequences to show how stronger effects might be achieved. Additional marks will be given for appropriate references to other uses of suspense in film or television. "

An on-line examination containing questions such as this, which demands the use of moving images and sound as well as written words, is already technically possible. Is it likely? It would be if New Labour was making a commitment to New Literacy. But it isn't. Although the party is not as instinctively hostile as the Tories were to the proposition that film and television are "important parts of contemporary culture" (as the Cox Report put it in 1990), the new Government has made an instant commitment to literacy targets defined purely as "reading and writing". It has thus effectively removed from the agenda any notion that literate citizens in 2007 might need an increased repertoire of skills.

At the same time, the much-vaunted National Grid for Learning will give every school the capacity to receive, manipulate and export a variety of media including film, speech, music and animated graphics. With this new generation of technology, a child's expressive, communicative and critical potential - the

very talents extolled in Prime Minister Tony Blair's vision of New Britain - will be dramatically expanded.

The means to define and foster this enhanced communicative repertoire will be there - but if the literacy and numeracy targets are to be met, the time will be lacking.

Meanwhile in another part of the political forest, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has declared that film is, officially, an important part of contemporary culture. His film policy review committee, charged with finding a way to double the audience for British films, wants to know what education is doing to help young people appreciate their moving image heritage.

The answer, sadly, is not a lot. Rapid staff turnover and INSET cutbacks ensure that only a tiny percentage of classroom teachers have any confidence about teaching the subject. And why should they have? Media learning is not tested, does not contribute to league tables and is not inspected by the Office for Standards in Education.

Most teachers feel on safe ground if they are showing the "film of the book" or scouring adverts for gender stereotypes, but neither of these activities bears much relation to the vague requirements of the national curriculum, with its stipulations of "high quality" and "presentation devices".

If media teaching in schools were to become better defined, more recognisable - more testable, in fact - from where would it gain its rigour? Just how appropriate would it be to look at specialist courses for older students, where media learning has to be tested?

Media studies has been the success story of the 16-19 phase, having expanded by 1,668 per cent in the past seven years at A-level alone. This has brought inevitable problems, with demand far outstripping the supply of qualified teachers. The Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council estimates that 10 per cent of those teaching its syllabus have no suitable training, and at least 30 per cent of media teachers are new to the subject each year.

Too many people assume little training is needed. But media studies demands an astonishing breadth and rigour, with the need to marshal an array of sociological, cultural and literary theory around any and every communicative endeavour. This breadth is clearly part of its appeal, and is essential, but if five subjects rather than three become the norm for a new 18-plus certificate, tough decisions will have to be made.

The notion of splitting media studies into several areas, specialising in moving image here and multimedia there, would be anathema to most media teachers.

Perhaps it is time to stop defending media studies' purity as a single subject and start examining what the phenomenon really is and what it can offer us. Sooner or later we will have to recognise that media studies is more than a subject - it is a movement.

The important issue is not the novelty value of the study objects - it is the diverse repertoire of critical tools the subject provides. Arguing about whether Shakespeare is worth more than Neighbours is a pointless distraction from the real value of that repertoire, which enables pupils to understand all the texts they encounter, not just some of them. It then hardly matters whether that critical repertoire is applied to one medium or 10, or whether it diversifies into history or modern languages as well as English.

What media studies has developed is the likeliest way of successfully addressing the daunting array of content and skills the film committee and the National Grid for Learning are urging upon us.

Ironically, an improbable alliance stands in the way - traditional media teachers staunchly defending their patch, and traditional literacy advocates who see television as heresy, not heritage.

Good sense may yet prevail. The Literacy Task Force has urged the Qualificati ons and Curriculum Authority to consider "reducing prescription and increasing discretion over teaching in other subjects". As well as making space for the literacy hour, this looks like being the best chance we will get to claw back space for innovation. New Literacy is not going to be attained through the implementation of set techniques. It will be discovered by good teachers doing what they do best - experimenting, reflecting and sharing.

What must not then happen is reinstatement of the laissez-faire curriculum, in which innovation is confined to enthusiasts, constantly reinventing the wheel in their own experimental enclave.

Unless innovation is evaluated and fed into training and inspection, it is pointless. The Government must ask itself whether or not we can afford to retain an essentially conservative curriculum. In a changing world do we not need a strategy for change in education?

Cary Bazalgette is principal education officer at the British Film Institute

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