For many years in the UK, media education was a ‘movement’, searching for a space on the timetable in schools and colleges. From the 1960s onwards a growing number of teachers and lecturers became interested in studying mass media forms, especially film, television, radio and newspapers and magazines. Some teachers argued that learning about these important elements of popular culture would be best achieved through students producing media products themselves. Distinct qualifications in media theory and media practice emerged from the 1970s onwards and the ‘movement’ has now become an established part of UK education.

The move to a National Curriculum in the England and Wales in the late 1980s squeezed the space available for media education in primary schools (5-11) and secondary schools (11-16), but at the same time the range of qualifications in the 16-19 age range expanded dramatically and by 2000 some 18,000 students were sitting Advanced Level examinations in Media Studies, Film Studies and Communication Studies and a further 5,000 or so were being assessed on media courses in vocational education. A further 25,000 students were assessed on intermediate courses (GCSE and equivalent) in Media Studies. There have been attempts to get media education ‘written in’ to various subjects in the National Curriculum, such as Art and English and since 1998 a distinct ‘media’ element has been added to the specification for English 14-16, so that all students now undertake an analysis of a media product.

Media education in the UK is characterised by the development of a set of ‘Key Concepts’ that can be found in the specifications for all media qualifications. These refer to any media product such as a film, television programme, audio recording etc. (often referred to as ‘media texts’). The concepts are:

  • Media Language (the formal properties of media texts)
  • Genre (the classification of texts)
  • Representation (the ways in which ideas and values or specific groups or types of people are constructed in media texts)
  • Institution (the organisation of media production and issues of ownership and control over communication)
  • Audience (the target audience for media products and the range of audience behaviour in ‘reading’ texts)

In addition, most media courses will see the acquisition of basic skills, knowledge and understanding about media production itself as a ‘core’ element of provision. Typical questions that a media education course might set out to answer are:

What is the meaning of produced by this film, television programme etc.?

  • How is the meaning produced?
  • How might the text be classified as a genre?
  • What kinds of representation are found in the text?
  • Who produced the text and for what purpose?
  • How might different audiences understand and respond to the text?
  • What kinds of skills and understanding are required to produce such a text?

Media education in the UK has attracted a fair amount of ‘bad press’, partly because it is often popular with students and diverts their interest from other more well-established subjects. Critics have also argued that media education lacks academic rigour. In reality, media education challenges students and develops critical skills rarely practised in more traditional disciplines. Media education is perhaps misunderstood because of its multi-disciplinary nature. Arguably this is one of its strengths with a creative tension that comes from mixing a ‘text-based’ approach derived from English and a more ‘people and process’ approach derived from the social sciences. A similar tension exists between theory and practice in media education.

© Roy Stafford 2001