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Media Studies and the reform of qualifications

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David Buckingham is Professor of Media and Communications at Loughborough University, UK, and a Visiting Professor at the Norwegian Centre for Child Research. His work focuses on children and young people’s interactions with electronic media, and on media education. He has directed more than 25 research projects on these issues, and been a consultant for bodies such as UNESCO, the United Nations, Ofcom, and the UK government. His recent books include Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture; The Material Child: Growing Up in Consumer Culture; and The Civic Web: Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation.

There is a long history of teaching about media in the British education system. The earliest publications and teaching materials in the field date back more than 80 years, and since the 1960s a great many teachers have used film, television and digital media in their work. Teaching about media has long been a core element of English teaching, and an aspect of other subjects such as Social Studies, History and Modern Languages. Media Studies as a separate, specialist examined course dates back to the early 1970s.

However, it’s fair to say that media education has always remained somewhat marginal. Media Studies is an optional subject taken in the upper years of secondary school, and it is not offered in all schools. It is taken by less than 8% of students. While most young people will study media in their English lessons, this varies a good deal between schools. There remains very little systematic or sustained media education in primary schools.

Both at school level and in higher education, Media Studies has often been reviled. It is routinely dismissed as a soft option, a Mickey Mouse subject. Paradoxically, it is condemned for being insufficiently academic but also for being insufficiently vocational. Media Studies, it is argued, isn’t taken seriously by universities, but it won’t get you a job in the media either. Most of this criticism is based on prejudice and ignorance: very few of the critics of Media Studies have even the faintest idea of what it involves.

Despite the criticisms, Media Studies has grown significantly. In universities, the number of courses has increased massively – and in fact most ‘top’ (Russell Group) universities offer undergraduate or postgraduate courses in the area. In schools, Media Studies GCSE and A Level have also expanded significantly, although in the past few years the numbers have started to level off.

Nevertheless, Media Studies remains vulnerable. While the emphasis on ‘media literacy’ in the 2003 Communications Act, and subsequently in the work of Ofcom, did provide some limited traction, this has largely disappeared. The current Coalition government and its ambitious Conservative minister for education were never going to be good news for media teachers.

One of the most recent moves in education policy has been the impending reform of GCSE and A Level qualifications. Along with some other ‘new’ subjects, Media Studies and the smaller sister subject of Film Studies seem to have been marginalized. Some fear that subjects like Media Studies may simply be deleted from the curriculum altogether.

The Media Education Association (the national subject association) is campaigning on this issue, involving stakeholders like the British Film Institute as well as mobilizing its teacher membership. You can read our arguments for media education on the Association website: There you will also find a commissioned report on the existing qualifications. The report assesses the current state of development, and gives an account of what qualifications in Media Studies actually involve – which is rather different from some of the caricatures you might have read in the press.

The report also identifies some significant questions that need to be addressed by media educators as the reform of qualifications moves forward. In our view, this process should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity. We are confident that much of what is going on in Media and Film Studies is coherent, rigorous and relevant to young people’s lives. The reform of qualifications should help us to continue to improve what is provided.

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