You too can be a media darling

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Did you know that the Channel 4 research team categorises its target viewers as "Progressive Priscillas", "Cosmopolitan Carlottas" and "Healthy Hesters"? Or that rock groups have to foot half the bill when making a pop video? Or that Alan Parker had more of a laugh directing the kids in The Commitments than making Evita with Madonna?

These are just three of the fascinating facts revealed during the British Film Institute's 12th Media Studies Conference, held recently at London's National Film Theatre.

The delegates, however, were not there to pick up television or movie trivia. For the many teachers and lecturers with an Eng Lit rather than media studies background, the conference is akin to an annual pilgrimage.

"The BFI is filling a gap that individual institutions have left wide open in terms of staff development," said one college's representative. Her colleague, due to start media studies teaching next term, was desperate for information, materials and support.

The conference can sometimes be the sole opportunity for staff training in a climate where "headteachers still assume English teachers can read one book and be ready to teach the subject".

The myth that media studies is a "soft" option both for students and teachers has not been entirely dispelled, despite its being the fastest- growing degree course.

Media education and training consultant, Roy Stafford, said: "Among the A-level teachers I meet, there's the sense of a subject growing very fast, insufficient staff development, and a sense of dissatisfaction about the past few years."

He claimed that there was a 10 to 15-year time lag between 16 to 19 teaching and HE.

Drawing on English, sociology, and art and design, media studies can be mistakenly viewed as an aggregate, rather than a discrete subject with its own methodologies. The subject has been around since the 1950s, but the first A-level only started in 1990. This goes some way to explain why the term "media studies" continues to suffer from conflicts of interest: to what extent does it mean education and to what extent industry training?What percentage of theory and textual analysis should be taught, as opposed to creative practice? Are the individual subjects contained within "media studies" - film, photography, pop music, journalism - now so developed as to render the over-arching term meaningless?

The main forum opened up a lively debate about the future of the subject. Martin Phillips, adviser for English and media education in Devon, argued that the current model "isn't very good on personal engagement in a practical, creative sense".

But the second speaker, chief examiner Patrick Phillips, felt that students do not engage in their written work: "There's too much parroting and lack of independent thought."

Roy Stafford argued that the term "media studies" was not outmoded, but that "its individual elements must be allowed to live independently in some new, multi-disciplinary way". He envisaged that by 2003, as a result of proposed changes to the post-16 curriculum, students would be able to choose at 16 from a "suite" of subjects, including textual analysis and media production.

Sophistication of students' written and practical work could be improved by the introduction of a basic media studies course lower down the school, he said. Delegates had more immediate concerns: one was anxious that at FE level, there was little affordable provision for vocational training. Another felt that at present, the GNVQ was "neither flesh nor fowl", neither academic nor vocational.

For the second year running, delegates could mix and match the intensive, teacher-led workshops with "Inside the Industry" sessions, in which top professionals gave an insight into film and TV production, advertising, marketing, research and journalism.

The workshops, given by school and college lecturers, ranged from an introduction to teaching Indian film, to the Internet for beginners.

Julie Eccleshall, from Hull College, said: "Being able to meet people from the media industry and talk to them has been a golden opportunity, and I know it will inform my practice.

"The people in the industry sessions were great, but the personal workshops were particularly good for professional development," she added.

During the closing session, the BFI - currently undergoing a strategic review - outlined its renewed commitment to education.

Richard Collins, due to become the BFI's head of education in October, said the institute is developing two new distance learning media education MAs, one via the Open University, and another through the University of Middlesex.

For those based further afield, isolation is a major problem. The BFI's head of educationa l publishing, Andrew Lockette, is working to improve the provision of books and moving image materials, and will provide a "sifting function" to help teachers navigate the new writing currently pouring out of universities. The institute is planning to improve its fledgling website and to put its comprehensive archive online.

In the meantime, a new media teaching website, through which teachers can share expertise and good practice, can be found at

However, there is still a long way to go: "FE has some really dreadful media courses because the term is so woolly," one sixth-form teacher summed up. "If taught well, it can be a really stunning subject and the students think so too. This conference is great for getting your finger on the pulse."

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