Who are you calling ‘soft’?

I was interested to read the HMC Tweet linked to the Telegraph’s story about the Ofqual review of ‘soft’ subject A levels and GCSEs. Isn’t it funny how soft always gets its own inverted commas in such stories? It’s almost as if people are frightened to say it themselves.

Among the subjects so labelled this week were the usual suspects such as Media and Business Studies but also, more surprisingly perhaps, Economics, Law and Geology. I welcome those subjects to the fold of the disparaged and encourage them to fight back.

Media is taught by many more HMC schools than is realised – or admitted. HMC often has representatives whose pronouncements support calls for more rigour and who support more traditional subjects. When they also disparage the ‘new’ subjects however, those of us who teach them sit back and shake our heads in disappointment but little surprise.

I wrote previously on this blog that the issues over the integrity of Media Studies were “for another time, place or bar”. With this week’s announcement of the Ofqual consultation, that time seems to be upon us.

I always find it interesting to challenge those who criticise the subject with a simple ‘why’? What usually follows is a series of barely coherent bigoted ejaculations based on no facts, but many articles in newspapers; some that should know better and some that never do. Rarely does a critic actually know or understand what is in the Media Studies specification.

Notwithstanding its daft name nor that it suffers the very abuse once levelled at English Literature when first introduced at university (‘a soft subject for the ladies’ it was then claimed), what are the virtues of Media Studies as a subject?

Barely a day goes past without the media itself being the focus of a news story and often a very important one. The consumption of media products in various forms on multiple platforms is increasing exponentially and whether they facilitate revolution in dictatorships, undermine democratic processes or lead to premature demise of a government scientist and teenagers, they are surely worthy of significant study.

We are told that the influence of social media is fuelling a surge in mental health problems but a good media student knows how to analyse the topic in a sophisticated fashion and understands the danger of responding to moral panics. The oft-cited and usually-pilloried Manhunt, Child’s Play3, Doom and askfm.com have been shown to have had little or no real impact in the tragedies on which first blamed. Had lovers of Latin and Physics taken a media course perhaps some might be less inclined to offer snap analysis of the sort that can lead to dangerous and ill-judged legislation and intrusions into hard-won freedoms and civil rights.

Media Studies is now a well-established field of academic study with a long history of research. The subject has a clearly-defined conceptual framework, well-developed approaches to classroom practice, and rigorous criteria for assessment that have been refined over several decades. Is it overdue for some reform? Absolutely – but not for extinction.

A great many leading universities conduct research and provide undergraduate and postgraduate courses in media. Among the Russell Group these include Oxford, LSE, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Warwick, Glasgow, Kings, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.

Media courses include analytical and critical study alongside creative and practical activities. This combination of theory and practice aims to produce reflective practitioners with the key skills – hard and soft – demanded by employers.

The creative sector accounts for around 6% of GDP and (according to the CBI) employs 2 million people. My son is one of them. Having attended an HMC school offering only ‘traditional’ subjects, he collected his haul of A and A* GCSEs and headed to another HMC school where media was on the table. He secured an A grade and has now graduated with a degree in digital media production. Before finishing the course, he was able to choose from two job offers, both in digital media, and each offering above the going rate for graduate employment. Had he not moved school and developed skills, talent and a love of media theory and practice, he would never have been in this position.

Media education is an essential requirement for active participation in contemporary society: it enables young people to be critically autonomous consumers of mass media, shrewd users of online and social media platforms, and more informed and engaged citizens. Media should be available to all students; perhaps it might be time to make it part of the compulsory core.

The UK is world leader in media education, both at school level and in higher education. We should aim to keep it there.

Sean Dunne, Deputy Head, Wycliffe College