15th August 2008 at 01:00
Media studies has a reputation as a soft course. But the subject is under the spotlight so much that teachers are developing star quality, discovers Nick Morrison

It's either an article of faith or a straw to be clutched at, but it seems that whenever you ask a media studies teacher about the scorn heaped on their subject, the conversation will quickly turn to English literature. "When English literature first became a subject, it came in for similar criticism, but it weathered the storm," is a typical response, trotted out with such frequency that it must form part of the first day's training for any would-be media studies teacher.

It's a refrain that is particularly well used at this time of year. A- level and GCSE results always provide an opportunity for complaints about falling standards, and no Aunt Sally is as popular as media studies. Media studies is held responsible for everything from undergraduates arriving at university unable to write proper sentences to the precipitous decline in the numbers taking Latin and Greek. No subject is the focus of so much sneering.

"It can be frustrating, and it's frustrating for the children who are taking it," says Tim Butterworth, a media studies teacher at Langley Park School for Boys, in Beckenham, Kent. "There's a view that it's just for children who can't cope with other subjects, although that view is changing."

But it's a slow process. Earlier this year, a report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found that A-level scripts in media studies were "less impressive" than in English literature, while a study published in June by researchers at Durham University said that media studies was a grade easier than physics, chemistry and biology at A- level. Media studies is included on a list of subjects put together by Cambridge University that provide "less effective" degree preparation.

And while media studies teachers may quote the example of English literature, the precedent is not entirely encouraging. It wasn't until 1894 that the University of Oxford, for example, saw fit to establish a School of English, after years of controversy, and even then it took another 50 years before it ceased to be thought of as a soft option.

These attitudes trickle down. Asked if they had ever lied about their job, one poster in the staffroom on The TES website ( responded that they had: they said they taught English instead of media studies.

"Whenever people talk about soft subjects, media studies is mentioned first," says Elaine Scarratt, a teacher at Forest Hill School in south- east London. Elaine chairs the Media Education Association, the first national body for media studies teachers, formed just over a year ago. One of its key aims is to "raise the status of media studies as a discipline".

As well as teaching, Elaine also runs inservice training days. The demand for these is both a cause and a consequence of the subject's reputation, ironic as it is that a communication-based subject has poor PR.

"Most of what I do is for teachers who are specialists in other subjects and have been told they have to teach media studies next term," Elaine says.

She believes it is a major problem that there is little initial teacher training in the subject. Just two institutions offer dedicated media studies initial teacher training in England: Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and the South West based Learning Institute. Between them they train about 20 teachers a year. Another six institutions offer media studies as a joint course with English; most media studies teachers have been trained to teach English. No Scottish or Welsh teacher training institutes offer media studies as a stand-alone subject.

This shortage of specific teacher training means that the standard of teaching can vary widely, says Julian McDougall, a reader in media and education at Newman University College in Birmingham.

Dr McDougall is given six hours out of a year-long course to prepare PGCE pupils to teach media studies. "We look at how to manage a video project, so they get a sliver of production work, and at media education, such as how you could use Facebook as a text.

"On the basis of my six hours, lots of students are going to be teaching English and media in equal measure. I often get emails the next year saying: `Help me' and you worry about the pupil experience at the other end."

He believes this approach may have been tenable when the subject largely involved textual analysis - "If you've got the skills to analyse a novel, you've got the skills to analyse a film or TV show" - but changes in the way media studies is taught, coupled with developments in technology, are making it increasingly redundant.

St John Starkie, head of media studies at Alexandra Park School in north London, characterises this as the move from media studies to media literacy. While the former treats the media as a text to be studied, the latter is interested in how it is put together. A similarity is the way science teaching is shifting from learning a body of knowledge, towards a skills-based approach. But he believes this requires a significant investment in teacher training, which would reflect and reinforce an improved status for media studies, in line with the increasing role of media technology in our everyday lives.

"We're lagging behind in our understanding of how media literacy can be a tool for our pupils. They live in a media-rich environment and they need to understand that world," he says.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools allocates places based on targets set by the Government. But a TDA spokesman says that as there is no shortage of media studies teachers, even if many of them have trained in other subjects, it is not considered a priority subject.

Putting money into training media studies teachers may be too hot a potato for most policymakers, but this is precisely what is needed, according to Mark Reid, head of education at the British Film Institute. The BFI was one of the key movers in the formation of the Media Education Association and is a principle provider of resources, as well as running regular training courses. Mark thinks money put into media studies will boost the creative economy.

Although everyone involved in media studies in schools emphasises that it is not a route into working in the media, he believes it is impossible to be literate in the 21st century without an understanding of the media. "The UK isn't going to lead the world in manufacturing any more, but where we do lead is in creative applications. Any qualification that supports that agenda is going to be popular and important," he says.

St John knows it will take time for the subject to get the training and resources it needs, but he believes it is a battle that is being won. "If we expect our children to operate and be happy in a media-rich world, we have to make it fundamental to the curriculum," he says. "If we don't study these things we're missing an enormous amount of our world."

Making media studies part of the core curriculum may seem optimistic when it is still searching for academic recognition. But maybe it's not too bold. After all, English literature was scorned by a 19th-century critic as "mere chatter about Shelley", and look how far it's come since.

What is media studies?

The requirements for media studies candidates at GCSE level include a general understanding of:

- How media forms, codes and conventions create meanings.

- How different audiences respond to and interact with media products and processes.

- A minimum of three different media (including one print and one audiovisual-based form).

GCSE pupils must also develop the ability to:

- Analyse and respond to media textstopics using key media concepts and technology.

- Research, plan and construct media products and evaluate those products and processes.

In addition, A-level candidates must demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

- How the media represents events, issues, places, socialcultural groups.

- Relevant critical debates about the media.

A-level students must also develop the ability to:

- Apply their knowledge and understanding of media concepts through analysis and interpretation of media products.

- Make connections between media concepts, products and contexts and critical debates that inform the study of them.

Source: QCA

Getting technical

When Vivienne Clark started teaching media studies in 1988, the school's resources ran to a dark room and a Panasonic mixer. "It was the equivalent of having a phone on a piece of string," she says.

Fast forward 20 years and there has been a revolution in the equipment available for pupils, particularly with the spread of Apple Macs over the past six or seven years.

Vivienne, who teaches at Langley Park School for Boys in Beckenham, Kent, says that criticism levelled at their subject has made media studies teachers more robust - and has led to better teaching.

"We have to keep justifying what we're doing and make sure we're doing it well. Maybe if other subjects had to face the scrutiny we do, perhaps they would be more exciting," she says. Vivienne did an English PGCE and is relaxed about the shortage of media studies teacher training courses - "teachers change subjects and they always have", she says. But whatever their background, she says it is vital for media studies teachers to become specialists using continuing professional development.

The latest recruit to Vivienne's department is Will Cossey, who this summer completed his media studies PGCE at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. As part of a cohort of 13, he is one of the few specialist trained teachers going into schools this year.

"The technical skills are essential," he says. "I don't necessarily think it's a problem that there isn't lots of specialist training, but I did benefit from it."

Media in numbers

Media studies' growing popularity has given it attention denied to other relatively new subjects. It was introduced into classrooms in the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that it began to take off.

In 1997, just over 31,000 pupils entered a GCSE examination in the subject; by last year, it rose to over 58,000.

This rise came over a period when entries for most other subjects remained static. And it compares with 49,000 for music, and 68,000 for German last year.

At A-level, the increase is more dramatic: from almost 9,000 entries in 1997 to just over 23,000 last year.

While recent studies have suggested that it is easier to get high grades in media studies than in some other subjects, the proportion getting higher grades is relatively low.

At GCSE, 61.3 per cent of media studies candidates gained a grade A* to C last year, compared with 79 per cent in all subjects.

At A-level, 13.5 per cent of candidates got an A grade last year, just over half the figure for all subjects (25.3).

Only ICT, accounting and finance and general studies had a lower rate of exam entrants achieving the top grade.

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