Media education has been eradicated from the English (mother tongue language and literature) curriculum in England. Why has this happened, and what consequences will it have?
In the UK, media education used to be a key aspect of English teaching. Some of the earliest publications about media teaching, dating back to the 1930s, were created by English teachers. By the 1960s, media such as advertising, television and newspapers were routinely taught in English classrooms, alongside language, poetry, drama and so forth. When Media Studies emerged as a separate specialist subject in the 1970s, some influential media educators (such as Len Masterman) were quite hostile to what they saw as the elitism of English. However, most media teachers had originally been trained as English teachers – and this probably continues to be the case today.
At least to begin with, the National Curriculum seemed to reinforce this situation. Back in the late 1980s, I helped to write sections of ‘Non-Statutory Guidance’ on media for the emerging National Curriculum. A couple of years later, the British Film Institute published two ‘curriculum statements’, which (among other things) emphasized the place of media education within English teaching. The English and Media Centre published a substantial book, The English Curriculum: Media, which outlined principles and teaching approaches for school years 7-9; and it went on to support this with teaching materials like The Media Book.
In the early 1990s, I wrote a couple of pieces for the English Magazine, which outlined some of the issues at stake here (you can find the first of them reprinted in this book). I argued that English teachers could learn from applying and extending the framework of media education ‘key concepts’ to print texts – addressing areas such as representation, institutions and audiences, that tended to be neglected. Yet I also suggested that media teachers had much to learn from the rich tradition of English, and that its creative approaches to teaching reading and writing could fruitfully be extended to ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ media.
At that time, we assumed that this dialogue would continue, and that media would remain an integral and growing part of English teaching. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, this was indeed the case: publications by writers like Andrew Hart and Andy Goodwyn, and more recently Becky Parry, and Andrew Burn and James Durran, have explored what ‘media in English’ looks like, and how it can extend and enrich mainstream English teaching. However, by the mid-2000s, progress appeared to falter. The existence and popularity of Media Studies as a specialist subject may to some extent have let English teachers off the hook; and the changing nature of English (and its redefinition in primary schools as a particular version of ‘literacy’) seemed to reduce the opportunities for extended work on media.
Meanwhile, media educators themselves were arguably distracted (or even derailed) by other policy imperatives. In the late 1990s, the BFI’s work on media education came to be dominated by a narrower emphasis on film; and as we moved into the early 2000s, some in media education were captivated by the wider, but much more diffuse, emphasis on ‘creativity’. ‘Media literacy’ emerged as a potentially productive theme in communications policy in the mid-2000s, but (as I’ve argued elsewhere) it never really connected with educational policy. Media education was also overtaken by the push to insert digital technology in schools – and in some cases, damagingly confused with it.
In recent years, there have been further significant changes affecting English teaching; and among them, media education has now been effectively expunged from the subject. The enthusiasm for the fashionable notion of ‘multimodality’ that was apparent in the 2007 National Curriculum for English proved to be short-lived (my critical observations on this can be found here). While some academics and educators continue to talk about ‘multiliteracies’ and ‘new literacies’ (which self-evidently include forms of ‘media literacy’), these ideas have virtually no purchase in the current literacy or English curriculum, at least in England (the situation in other parts of the UK – and indeed in other English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada – is somewhat different in this respect).
Why has this happened? There are many reasons, but ultimately it’s a reflection of the broader rightward shift in educational policy under the coalition and then Conservative governments of the 2010s. The longer history here has been very well told by Simon Gibbons in his book English and its Teachers. Gibbons usefully challenges the caricature of ‘progressive’ English teaching that has been circulated in recent years, demonstrating that it was more sophisticated and more theoretically grounded than its detractors have suggested.
To its cost, English (along with other subjects like History) has become a focus for the symbolic politics of contemporary education policy-making. Under former Education Secretary Michael Gove and his protégé Nick Gibb, English reverted to an antiquated conception of the subject that seems to have come from an imaginary grammar school some time in the 1930s. In this version, English is all about grammar and comprehension exercises, as well as self-evidently ‘great’ or ‘classic’ literature. English has become the bearer of a narrow, backward-looking conception of national identity that is entirely at odds with modern, multicultural Britain. It’s what one might call a Brexit Curriculum.
In recent debates, the term that has come to encapsulate this is knowledge – an emphasis that ultimately derives from the work of the so-called educational theorist E.D. Hirsch, and his lists of essential facts that young people need to know. This has had damaging consequences for the specialist subject of Media Studies, as I argued in an earlier post. Media theory has been reduced to a matter of learning a prescribed list of ‘important’ theorists, and rehearsing a bullet-pointed set of key facts about their work. But in English, the damage seems to have been even more far-reaching.
From this new perspective, English isn’t about woolly ideas like skills or competencies (beyond those of handwriting and punctuation), let alone absurdly libertarian nonsense about ‘personal growth’. No, English is all about high-status, ‘powerful’ knowledge. In fact, the kinds of knowledge that are routinely touted in these debates are curiously at odds with most contemporary academic understanding of language and literature. In the case of language, young children are taught arcane terminology that even most linguists regard as eccentric and irrelevant; and there is a complete rejection of long-standing traditions of research about language learning.
Many respected English educators have challenged this approach. A couple of years ago, John Richmond and his colleagues felt it necessary to publish a series of books that would recover and preserve what they feel is being lost. You can find their rationale here; and Andrew Burn’s ‘state of the art’ book on media in English, based on decades of practice and research, is available here. Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Michael Rosen continues to generate copious and witty critiques of government policy; while James Durran offers thoughtful, creative and challenging classroom activities that often make use of new (and old) media.
Even so, these authors seem to be swimming against the tide: the prospects for media in English are not promising. You can search in vain for the word ‘media’ in the relevant documents, such as the latest subject content specifications for secondary school examinations. This doesn’t just apply to old media like television, but also to online and social media, which are nowhere to be found. It’s possible to study print journalism, providing it is of sufficient ‘quality’ (although, needless to say, quality is not defined). As I noted in an earlier post, the opportunities for addressing a focus of concern like ‘fake news’ within the current curriculum are minimal.
Surveying online resources for teaching media within English, and publications like the recent special issue on media of the journal Teaching English, I’m struck by how little reference is made to Media Studies critical concepts. We have examples of video production being used as a means of improving pupil progress in English; film as a stimulus to creative writing; or digital technology used to develop interviewing and presentational skills. Media – and, in most cases specifically film – seem to function mainly as a means of motivating students’ interest; but media education is mostly regarded as an ancillary or a precursor to the real work of traditional print literacy.
This all feels rather like stepping back to the 1950s, or even earlier. At a time when young people’s lives (and indeed, all our lives) are so thoroughly saturated with media – and when we all have so many more opportunities to create and communicate through media – it seems like a deliberate attempt to ignore reality.
The argument for media education has always – at least in part – been an argument for a revised and expanded concept of English. What we need is a subject at the heart of the curriculum where young people learn to understand and engage with culture and communication, in both ‘modern’ and traditional forms. At present, we appear to be heading determinedly in the opposite direction.
For my next blog, I’ve put some questions about this to two experts in the field. I’m hoping they will have greater cause for optimism than I have been able to muster here.
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