So, How Did You Do in Your A-Level, Sir Peregrine?; Could Real Journalists Pass a Media-Studies A-Level? David Rowan Put Two of Them to the Test
Rowan, David, The Evening Standard (London, England)
Byline: DAVID ROWAN
STOP, for a moment, thinking of this as a classically lively and insightful Evening Standard feature, and see it for what it really is: homework. Simply by reading this far, you have sharpened your critical faculties, engaged in a ripe old contextual analysis, and deconstructed the very essence of contemporary print journalism. Congratulations - just another paragraph or two now and you'll be ready to claim your media-studies degree.
Well, perhaps the coursework is tad more demanding than that. But for media executives across the land, currently besieged by the late-summer wave of CVs brimming with media-studies credentials, the subject retains a certain image problem. In the words of former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead, it's one of those "fatuous" disciplines, like knitwear, beauty therapy and golf-course management, that mark the decline of a once-great nation.
Tell that to the 25,321 students who sat media, film or TV studies at AS-level this summer, or the 15,805 who took the A-level. Barely a decade old, the A-level course is already garnering ratings that ITV Saturday-night football can only dream about. First piloted in four schools 11 years ago, it is now more popular than German and music combined. But how much of a gap is there between the skills that are taught and the daily demands of work in the media?
To test the premise, we asked two senior journalists to sit one of this summer's A-level papers, which we then sent to a professional examiner for marking. Our candidates have held what many students would see as dream jobs in newspapers and television: Sir Peregrine Worsthorne edited The Sunday Telegraph, and Kirsty Lang, former Sunday Times correspondent, now presents Channel 4 News. We asked them to choose one question from the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board's "media debates" paper - sat by 6,402 other students in June as part of their A-level course - and made them stick closely to the rules. No reference books; no more than an hour for the question; and answers in their best handwriting.
The choice of 17 questions ranged from discussing the extent to which TV ads "reinforce or subvert domi-
nant ideologies", to an analysis of the settings within soap operas that represent "characters in their own right". Both of our candidates chose question nine: "Discuss the view that news is produced and manufactured as a commodity." So how did they do?
"They're very brave," said our examiner, Richard Harvey, 57, who has taught and examined the subject since its inception. "But while you can busk it as a journalist, at A-level you've got to know what you're talking about."
Mr Harvey had some rather strong views of our candidates' efforts (see panel). But his main concern is for those who dismiss the subject as an easy option. "It isn't a training for the industry it doesn't pretend to be," he said.
"It's an academic discipline that teaches independent research.
The problem is that media practitioners look at the courses and say there's no way they can train you for the newsroom - when they're not trying to."
An unscientific poll among newspaper and broadcast executives conducted by Media Standard certainly suggests that few see a media-studies qualification as a reason to employ somebody - the exception being the postgraduate journalism courses from colleges that maintain strong industry links. Mr Harvey's students have gone on to work as northern sports editor on the Telegraph and presenter on BBC News 24, but the course isn't designed for the workplace.
Rather, it is designed to stretch students' analytical skills and spur their critical might. "There are some duff university courses out there which pretend they're vocational, but they're not," he said. …