A-level results are out with record passes, prompting much sneering about "soft" options such as Media Studies. An expert of the genre, Professor John Ellis, of Royal Holloway, University of London, deconstructs the media's coverage of Media Studies.
Every year the A-level examiners do the press a great favour. They provide a guaranteed story in the slowest news week of the year: the "decline in standards". So last year's articles can just be retrieved and updated.
This year a common line of attack highlights the rise of media studies and the decline in modern languages over the past decade. Private Eye's Number Crunching feature does it succinctly: "50% drop in students taking French or German A's; 500% increase in students taking Media Studies; A level pass rate increases from 84.2% to 97%." The Independent takes 1,200 words to make roughly the same point.
The Telegraph claims that students are avoiding "difficult" subjects such as foreign languages and sciences, and switching to courses such as Media Studies. It quotes an unnamed "senior education official" claiming that in Media Studies, "the proportion of passes has risen even further, to more than 98%".
We can expect more of the same now the results are out, and most will feature, as these do, quotes from Alan Smithers or Chris Woodhead.
Why is Media Studies so handy as a self-evident sign of the decline in standards?
So easy a child could do it?
Mainly because the media are exactly that: self-evident. Entertainment, journalism, the internet appear to have no mystery about them because we use them every day.
But when you try to make a film, write an article or design an effective website, you begin to see how much skill is involved, both in making the stuff and equally in understanding how we understand it. Media Studies aim to reveal those skills underlying what we take for granted.
Unfortunately the subject examines journalism as a medium, and that makes journalists uncomfortable.
Classroom discussions examine hastily constructed articles that quote unnamed or the same old sources, and they don't stand up to such scrutiny. Doubt is soon cast on the misuse of statistics like Private Eye's which leaves out the crucial information: Media Studies A-level was introduced only in 1995 and was taken then by very few pioneers.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
Any Media Studies class will quickly reveal the sleight of hand used by the Telegraph by comparing its coverage with the Independent's.
The Telegraph provides evidence of a 98% pass rate in Media, but the Independent's journalist quotes his own Education Editor (he was lucky to get that interview) to reveal that "11% got an A-grade in media studies compared to 22.4% overall".
Results are out on Thursday
Teaching can then reveal the pressures that lead to such sloppy work. It's not the journalists who are at fault so much as a system in search of the easy story.
For Media Studies' range is wide, from the understanding of texts and how they are read to the systems that produce them and market them. It embraces detailed studies of movies, the economics of broadcasting, new technologies, political history.
It is "Mickey Mouse" only to the extent that it explains why Walt Disney was a consummate artist and showman, way ahead of his time in understanding how TV could be used in brand creation and marketing.
Yet every summer sees attacks on Media Studies; and how predictable they are too.
They say the subject is too contemporary. I say that its relevance produces more critical and savvy students.
They say it pushes out other less glamorous choices. I say that most students take it along with two or three other subjects.
Filming is a logistical challenge
They say it is only taken by the less intelligent students. I say that it provides a huge range of skills from time management, project and group work to essay writing and working with images.
They say it misleads students into thinking they can get a media job. I say that it explains how the industry works, showing that there is more graft than glamour, and few jobs out there (and even fewer paid ones).
This year the predictable stories have a new spin. They claim that Media Studies has caused the decline of modern languages at A-level. I too regret the decline of language studies, but hang on a moment. Spanish is holding its own, it's French and German that are in decline. And language teaching is getting more like Media Studies, using film and TV material extensively to learn about everyday language use.
It's a convenient myth to see Media Studies as causing this decline, and it masks other more substantial reasons.
These include the casual xenophobia of much of our media material, and the neglect in school provision of the languages that matter for the future, like Chinese. Now there's a language we all need to learn. Perhaps I will have done by the time I repeat this piece in a year's time...
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I think everyone is missing the point yet again. Ultimately, exams are designed to differentiate people and to provide an objective way of measuring one persons ability with another (however much that may displease the 'deferred success' lobbyists). For the disinterested observer therefore, such as an employer, they need to understand what skills and abilities the potential new recruit has. As someone involved in hiring at all levels, I for one must profess my inadequacy in not knowing what a Media Studies A-level entails. However, as it is not the most pressing issue on my agenda I will rightly or wrongly discount it from my considerations, as I do not know what it tells me about a potential employee.
Edward, London, UK
As a retired journalist, I can say that I have encountered many graduates from media studies courses. Some of them possess that natural flair for journalism without which no one will succeed in the news media. They can smell a good story and know how to deal with it. Many others though do not have it. They can learn all they like about media law and the technical aspects of newspaper, radio and TV production, but they will never become journalists. Media studies courses should vet applicants at the start to determine whether they have this natural ability.
Lack Thompson, London UK
Good grief. I have seen some special pleading in my time but the claim that media studies gets a bad press because it develops critical insights into the media takes some beating. On a substantive note film making is indeed a logistical challenge. But so is moving home.
The only reason I chose Media Studies as part of my joint degree was because it was insultingly easy and was guaranteed to push my overall grade up!
Succinct and informative article. My son is taking Media Studies and I now feel more comfortable and confident about what he is doing. Such a shame the subject is so unfairly and unrightfully singled out for derision.
Peter Coltart, Farnham, England
Professor Ellis presents many attractive arguments as to the validity of Media Studies. I am also certain that this subject can generate all of the transferable skills that he mentions. What he does not address is the fact that the number of job opportunities in the media are far outnumbered by the number of graduates of media studies. Even taking the transferable skills that he mentions into account, alternative employers for the unlucky ones are liable to be far more impressed with qualifications directly focussed to their line of work. Moreover, exactly how many thousands more journalists, critics, web designers etc. do we actually need when we consider the lack of good mathematicians, medics, scientists and other productive and useful careers?
Mark Willett, Brighton, UK
Media studies has always been an easy option. When I took my A-Levels in the late '90s it was standard practise for my school to enter us for the exam as an extra A-Level. We were given a couple of weeks to brush up exam technique and cover some basic theory before notching up an extra A-Level. You could never have passed History or Chemistry A-Level with just two weeks of lessons!
Despite what the Professor claims, Media Studies is not a subject. It is merely the examination of an ephemeral phenomenon.
Julian, London UK
We need media studies graduates!
Who else is going to serve me my fries?
Philip Dagnan, Harlow, UK
I studied Media studies and now due to that course I earn a great wage working in new-media design. So soft option or not - it gave me employment opportunities - surely the point of education.
Having completed a Media Studies degree I found that gaining any type of media-related work was impossible. The degree merely gives you the tools to analyse and deconstruct the media not work within it. The popularity of these degrees ensures that a high percentage of graduates will not gain worthwhile employment and will instead be labelled as unskilled workers. In short Media Studies, although interesting, is a waste of time if those attending these courses wish to wish to work in the media.
Simon Wood, Liverpool
I am 16 and am about to start my A-levels. I will be taking Media Studies and am outraged at the claims of its ease. Having seen the course details and talked to older friends that have too taken it, it is far more than just making a film and a poster. The notion that it is for only the 'less smart' pupils is also preposterous! I am expected to get mostly A*s for my GCSEs next week. Also I will be taking Physics, General Studies, Computing and Politics with Media - all of which are no mean feat! The exams are not getting easier, the teaching is getting better, and we and the teachers are prosecuted for it! Stop!
Jonny Casey, Chester, England
Utter Piffle. Scant justification for the continuing malaise in this countries education standards.
And, in the same practical vein, just how much use is history or philosophy?
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