Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In defence of Media and Film

I was quaking in my boots a little when OFQUAL published their list of subjects being considered for "reform" (or not!) a few weeks ago. And lo, there it was: Film is disappearing. One of the hardest, most engaging courses I teach, as well as one of the most enjoyable. Going. Going. Gone.

Those of you who follow these developments will know how this story goes: Two hours later OFQUAL rescinded their own publication, claiming that Film should not have been on the list (here if you're interested). Huzzah and hurrah. 

But then it struck me that, rather than feeling happy at this, I should have been more than a little indignant at the fact that we have to defend our subject's validity YET AGAIN! So I decided act, and to take their consultation document: For all the good it did. A series of anodine and difficult to disagree with statements which will eventually secure tacit agreement for the measurements they were going to take anyway, I suspect. So I wrote to them. This is my open letter to OFQUAL, in defence of Media and Film Studies' place on our curriculum.

To whom it may concern

I am writing to you about your online consultation concerning the reform of GCSEs and A Level qualifications. Having filled in the entire document online, I was disappointed that that the consultation document provided no opportunity to argue for the continuance of Media or Film Studies at GCSE, AS and A level, so this letter is a direct appeal in support of these subjects for your consideration in reforming them.

First, for the vast majority of the students I teach, Media and Film Studies are the most important subjects they learn, despite also studying so-called “traditional” qualifications alongside them. I teach in a highly academic school, and we do not teach for passes, we teach for excellence. Of the students I teach, seven in the past year alone have been nominated for national and regional awards for their Media and Film production work (including BFI Young Film-maker of the Year). I doubt that they would ever have achieved this level of quality of their own volition, without someone to introduce the subject to them in the first place through passion, rigorous academic study and through practical experimentation. These are the media and film professionals of the future, but they need time to master their arts. Students who arrive at university to embark on Media or Film as courses they are studying for the first time are at a clear disadvantage according to my former students, and the fact that mine have been training in professional skills since Year 10 means that one day, they WILL join the industries and move these industries forward innovatively and creatively, and keep the UK at the very top on international media and film production, with all that this entails for National economic growth and prosperity.

On an academic level, I would draw your attention to the already demanding nature of assessment: GCSE involves extended comparative writing which motivates many to improve their linguistic abilities; A level examinations are currently substantial essay-based examination papers. Both subjects include assessment of research skills, as well as analytical skills. These are the bedrock of the “traditional” curriculum we seem to be returning towards, so why would we withdraw subjects which reinforce such skills?

Second, there is a popular perception of Media and Film Studies as “soft” subjects, which I would disagree with fundamentally. The vast majority of my students will also tell you that Media and Film were far tougher courses than their “academic” counterparts. In part this is the fault of the mass media itself and its largely biased reporting of the subjects: The tabloids have no qualms about labelling our subjects as lesser subjects compared to the “traditional” subjects being pushed by the present government. The fact that the broadsheets put inverted commas around the word soft does not in any way absolve them of blame for reinforcing this perception, in my opinion. The message from the media is clear: Studying media or film is an easy option. 

However, I would argue that OFQUAL is equally to blame in this process for not countering this perception explicitly with evidence. I would contend that the level of demand at both GCSE and A level is very high: Students analyse film and media texts in exactly the same way as they do in English, except that they must take account of not only linguistic characteristics of texts, but also the way the layout, camera angles, editing and sound work in tandem with these linguistic features. This adds layers of meaning which are very subtle, additional to those studied in English, and indeed constitute an entire language of their own. And this only covers the textual analysis aspects of the courses. Film and Media Studies also require that students understand why texts are the way they are, by taking into account institutional, social, political, economic, historical and technological factors which may influence meaning and interpretations of texts. While this is a skill which is taught in English, I would argue that the up-to-date nature of film and media studies enquiries makes it much more challenging for students to interpret the influence of these contexts, as they are not doing so with the benefits of hindsight, or with the help of “expert voices” to guide them. Media and Film students learn a basic framework of analysis, but from there they are applying this to texts which are so new they are largely untouched by academic study. They have to apply their learning very subtly, often drawing in a range of material which benefits other subjects, such as History, English, Philosophy and Ethics, Sociology and Psychology.

Third, I would argue that the range of topics which are studied at GCSE and A level is also extending for students. The subject involves more than a study of mainstream popular film and media texts. It involves the study of texts from other cultures around the world, in other languages (my own students study Spanish, French, Iranian and Cantonese/Mandarin texts), and asks that we understand those cultures so as to be able to discern their influence on particular films, and their influence on our own culture. These are skills which are incredibly demanding for students between the ages of 14 and 18. Furthermore, film and media texts act as a cultural resource and a way of gaining access to experiences and cultures, and raising important issues relevant to society today (including, ironically, the idea of media bias and media agendas, and their influence on the political agenda, the reason that you are carrying out this consultation in the first place, one might argue: See point 2 above).
The media and film industries shape, and arguably construct, the terms of people’s perceptions, the way people think, their attitudes, values and beliefs. Students need to understand the role of the media in that process if they are to have any chance of becoming engaged, active and reflective citizens within our society. If we deny them these opportunities, we can only blame ourselves when society somnambulates into a future of fear, despair and obsequious conformity. We owe our students a better future than that.

I hope that you will give the above arguments the weight of consideration they deserve when considering how the subjects should be reformed.

Yours faithfully

Mike Gunn

If you want to write to them with your own equally passionate (but undoubtedly more eloquent) supporting letter, please feel free. The address is below:

Spring Place,
Coventry Business Park,
Herald Avenue,
CV5 6UB       

PS Rest assured: I didn't post cartoons with my original letter to OFQUAL!