In its April 2021 report, ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2020/21’, Ofcom is very clear about the importance of media literacy. In their words:

‘Media literacy enables people to have the skills, knowledge and understanding to make full use of the opportunities presented by both traditional and new communication services. Media literacy also helps people to manage content and communications and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services’.

This is Ofcom’s definition of media literacy: ‘the ability to use, understand and create media communications in a variety of contexts.’

The above also happens to be a rather neat summary of what is currently taught in GCSE media studies in the UK’s secondary schools. Media studies is a subject that for many years has been, in my view, unfairly dismissed as being ‘lightweight’ and not ‘serious’ by commentators and some schools too. As an English and media studies teacher for the last 30 years, I confess that when asked what subject I teach, I usually tell new acquaintances that I am an English teacher – it’s just quicker and easier, as everyone has studied English at school, and it also avoids the eye rolling that often greets my response if I say I teach media studies. So, what is studied in media studies at GCSE, and why do I and many other teachers think it’s not only a valid subject for serious academic study but an increasingly important one? I’ll try to explain.

Wide-ranging content

Over the course of two years, starting in Year 10, students engage in the critical analysis of different media forms, explore the context and history of a wide range of texts and along the way create their own media work from a set of briefs, that changes annually and counts for just under a third of their final grade. The AQA GCSE Media Studies 8572 course that I teach, for example, presents students with a diverse range of texts to study, from the first episode of ‘Dr Who’ (1963), right up to the present day, with a look at Kim Kardashian’s media output and video games such as Lara Croft. The list of CSPs (Controlled Study Products) is updated regularly – the influencer Zoella was ‘disappeared’ from the course last year after an outcry (you can google why) – and is wide-ranging. Students will look at print and TV advertising past and present, news media (both traditional print and online) and public service broadcasting. They will learn about the role of regulators such as OFCOM and the BBFC and will be taught how to decode and analyse unseen media just as they would a poem in their English literature GCSE.

Representation issues and an understanding of audiences lie at the heart of the subject. In their exams, students will have to analyse the screening of a short extract from a moving image text and, therefore, a part of their course will be learning the ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ of film – the use of camera, lighting, sound and editing to create meaning. The four key concepts that underpin all learning in media studies GCSE courses are: media language, representation, industries and audience. It would be hard to argue that it is not a ‘serious’ subject given the breadth and depth of study required for this GCSE.

Critical thinking

Not only is it very interesting to explore the world of media past and present, but it is also a way of allowing students to ask difficult questions and to think critically about the vast amounts of media that they consume. Most days there will be a high-profile media-related story in the news: Facebook and privacy; the spreading of false information through social media; the dangers of unrealistic portrayals of body types through Instagram; Twitter banning prominent individuals; the release of a new James Bond Movie and Beatles’ film. There’s no shortage of self-presenting lesson plans.

And who could argue with schools trying to help young people distinguish between trustworthy and non-trustworthy sources to reach balanced and reasonable conclusions about the world they live in? In-class discussions with their teachers and peers will enable students to become more critical of their own online activities and to explore new types of media output as the internet continues to evolve – or as OFCOM puts it in their report to ‘make full use of the opportunities presented’.

As a teacher who is well into middle age, my media ‘diet’ is certainly different to that of my students. Where they will be using Snapchat, TikTok and video games for their downtime, I will be listening to Radio 4 or to music from my vinyl collection; and in true old-school style, I still read a printed newspaper from time to time – what else will I stand my homebrew barrel of beer on to catch drips? Whilst it’s true that young people’s experiences of consuming media are very different to their older teachers and parents, there is still an overlap, and we can learn much from each other. For example, once again vinyl records are back in fashion, and whilst studying the music videos CSPs, students will learn about the streaming of music on Spotify, and how these new platforms have affected the music industry.

OFCOM’s report makes for sobering reading. ‘A quarter of 12-15s do not think about the truthfulness of information in newly discovered sites or apps’ (p.29) and one third of 12-15s does not ‘recognise vlogger sponsorship’ (p.31). These are the kinds of things that teachers can discuss in media lessons alongside their CSPs, and they are important conversations to have with students. Studying media as a GCSE is not only about exploring media texts old and new but is also a way of employing critical thinking skills, so vital for all school students faced with a tsunami of media available 24/7 via their phones and online. GCSE media, with its framework and range of CSP texts can certainly help young people with navigating a very complicated media landscape.

A hundred years ago in 1921, three years after the end of the First World War, Sir Henry Newbold’s renowned report into the teaching of English in England famously concluded that ‘every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English’. Given the media driven world of education we now live in, perhaps we can rephrase his words: ‘Every teacher is a teacher of media, because every teacher is a teacher in media’.

If you enjoyed this blog post, make sure to have a read of Julian McDougall’s blog “Media literacy vs fake news” about the importance of media studies in helping young people build up resilience to fake news.