The die has been cast. All across the land, students have now made their GCSE options choices – choices that could irrevocably impact the rest of their lives. The lead up to students making their choices is a funny time in the academic year, a time when heads of department of the showcase subjects of English and maths, are in the rare position of being under less pressure than many of their colleagues. For heads of department of subjects that are not taught at Key Stage 3, it is a period that holds a variety of pressures and obstacles.
The primary concern for all heads of subject at this time is to get ‘bums on seats’. You want to get as many students as realistically possible to choose your subject as an option, otherwise the best-case scenario may be that you end up with one small class, and the rest of your timetable is filled up with odds and ends. Year 7 PSHE on Friday, period 5 was a dreadful way to end the week two years ago, and teaching more ICT than media studies was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and caused me to leave my last school. However the worst-case scenario is that your subject isn’t viable due to lack of numbers, and you end up being lumbered with some made-up responsibility by SLT, to justify your TLR.
However the numbers game can be a double-edged sword. Whilst you want enough students to fill your timetable, you also want the ‘right kind’ of students; those who are enthusiastic and passionate about the subject, and who are ideally interested in progressing with your subject into further education. As an option subject that is not taught at Key Stage 3, you run the risk of some students choosing your subject because of the novelty factor, because they are sick of the subjects that they have been taught for three years and want to ‘drop’ any that they can, and because with ever restrictive options pathways giving students less and less choice, your subject may simply be the lesser of many evils.
Media studies as a subject has the added issue of being seen by both parents and students as somewhat of a ‘soft’ subject. If I had a pound for every student who has asked me “What do you do in Media studies? Do you just watch films?” I could retire early. Well, perhaps not, but it would certainly cover my Netflix subscription! One thing that I always try to make clear to students is the academic rigor of the course. I feel that media studies can be challenging for students to excel at, as it requires academic analytical skills, as well as creativity and practical skills. It is a subject that actively engages both hemispheres of the brain, unlike many other subjects.
Another negative question that I often encounter is “It’s just computers, innit?” That’s like saying maths is “…just numbers, innit”. It is an enormous understatement, and factually untrue. I would argue that there is at least a grain of truth to the statement in regards to maths, but computers have very little to do with media studies, and any relevance they have to the subject is relatively recent. Media studies as a discipline existed long before the days where every home had a computer, let alone nowadays where every teenager can access the World Wide Web via their phone.
Contrary to the view of media studies as a ‘soft’ subject, I believe that media studies has become increasingly important for young people, in the media saturated 21st century world of smart devices, 24hr wireless connectivity and ever present social media. I personally think there is a place for media literacy to be worked into the curriculum at Key Stage 3, perhaps delivered through PSHE lessons. Children are exposed to a wider range of media, on a more regular basis than at any point in history, and many parents won’t be aware of what their children are exposed to, or even what the potential risks are. Even if we ignore web-based new media, the old-guard mediums of television and print still have a surprising amount of influence over Internet-obsessed millennials.
To sell my subject, I have a five minute slot in an assembly where myself and three other heads of department attempt to inform a hall full of teenagers about what they will study over two years at GCSE, and convince them to take their subject. This is often a difficult task, and nowhere near enough time to get across the necessary information. I always stress during these assemblies for students who are interested in taking the subject to come and see me to discuss the option in more detail, so I can answer any questions they may have and dispel any myths. In addition to the assembly, we also have an options evening, where students and their parents get information about the options process, and get to quiz heads of department about the merits of their subjects.
Although both of these events are useful for teachers, students and parents, their impact is limited. I believe it would be much more beneficial for students to actually experience the subject, to see how lessons are conducted, and get a feel for the options These ‘taster lessons’ could be run mainly in subjects which are not taught at Key Stage 3, in order to avoid disruption to normally timetabled lessons, and perhaps take the place of ‘activities weeks’ for year 9 students.
Whatever short term disruption these ‘taster lessons’ may cause, would surely be outweighed by the positive impact of students choosing GCSE subjects that are right for them. There would be less students in your class who won’t engage because your subject is “not what they expected”, and you may avoid the upheaval caused by students swapping subjects after a few weeks of the first term.
Stuart Barton is Head of Media Studies at a school & sixth form college in Surrey