MEA survey into decreasing numbers of students taking Media Studies

Updated: Feb 22

In Autumn 2021, The MEA undertook a survey of teachers of Media Studies to attempt to identify the reasons for the declining numbers of students taking the subject. 145 members responded and the survey was followed by interviews of a selection of individual teachers to uncover the narratives behind the themes indicated by the survey. We are now pleased to publish the report and offer 8 key recommendations based on our findings. We welcome your thoughts and comments on our social media.


Report compiled by Dr Ray Campbell

1. Introduction and background

The history of the teaching of Media Studies (MS) in schools and colleges is one of fracture and fragmentation. Yet, despite this, British media education has been influential worldwide (Buckingham, 2019). Although, teaching MS in schools and colleges is a relatively recent phenomenon, in Higher Education, MS as a distinct academic discipline began in the early 1960s. This was due to the efforts of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies who introduced MS as a means of discussing and analysing issues of representation within the media (Golding, 2019). The first university course in MS was offered by the Central London Polytechnic (now Westminster University) in 1975. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, MS often formed part of the teaching of English and Sociology in schools. However, it should be stressed that MS is a distinct academic field from Media Production, the latter of which focusses on producing media products, while the former seeks to form critiques of various aspects of the media, including the way media products are consumed, how minorities are represented, issues of ownership and control and so on.

Golding (2019: 9) points out that there has often been considerable suspicion of the teaching of MS at all levels of education. Much of this suspicion and, indeed, opposition, comes from politicians and even the media organisations themselves, who may not only question the subject’s value as an academic discipline, but will also misrepresent MS, and dismiss it as a “soft subject”; simply an excuse for students to “mess around with a camera”. This misrepresentation is arguably the product of a deep-seated fear of the demystification of media organisations and media products – especially newscasts - which MS critiques offer students. Ironically, media organisations like the BBC and even advertising companies have stepped in and put themselves forward as media educators, particularly with regard to so-called “fake news”. The BBC, for example, has a site that provides resources for teachers, which aim to teach students how to identify fake news stories. Given the BBC’s history of creative editing, for example, during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, which is discussed in Glasgow Media Group Reader Volume 2: Industry, Economy, War and Politics (ed. Philo, 1995), then the Corporation is in no position to act as a MS educator nor, for that matter, is any media or newsgathering organisation. Teaching MS should be left to those who work in the field of education. Furthermore, the central role that social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Twitter play in the lives of young people needs to be recognised. Thus, given the changing media landscape, the need for MS teaching in schools and colleges is more necessary now than ever.


2. The study

145 teachers across the school and Further Education sectors participated in the Media Education Association survey, which took place between September and October 2021 with follow-up email interviews conducted in November and December 2021. The respondents included teachers in state schools and academies, public/independent schools, and FE colleges. A breakdown of institutions can be seen in this graph.


Of the 145 teachers interviewed, only 45 were specialist MS teachers. The largest group with responsibility for teaching MS taught English, or another subject, or a combination of English and Drama in conjunction with their MS teaching. Computing teachers formed the smallest group with only two teaching MS.


Turning to teacher training and whether respondents had some media training included in their initial training, 86 respondents replied “no”, while 58 replied “yes”. When asked whether they had a specialist degree in either MS or Film Studies, there was a similar majority who had no specialist qualification. In this case, it was 100 noes to 45 yeses. There is clearly a need for media training to be included in initial teacher training. Currently, teachers who want to learn more about delivering MS lessons in schools need to take a postgraduate course, such as the MA programme offered at UCL Institute of Education, if they have not undertaken one of the PGCEs offered by a small number of universities such as Sussex University or Goldsmiths College, University of London.


When respondents were asked whether interest in MS had increased or decreased, 52 respondents said it had decreased, while 39 said that it had increased. Thus, there is a narrow margin between those who have seen an increase and those who have seen a decrease, with 43 saying it had stayed the same. (See graph below).



When asked whether MS had a low status in their institution, a majority of 58 agreed, while 8 strongly agreed. The remainder neither agreed nor disagreed. Furthermore, most respondents agreed that MS is seen by many universities as a low status subject.

Regarding the set texts for MS, most respondents agreed that set texts were of little interests to their students.


If the set texts, which are chosen by examination boards, are of little interest to students, then it's likely that it is because the texts are out of date or have failed to consider the fast-moving changes that have taken place in the media for the last 10 – 20 years. Whatever the case, this needs to be examined more closely.


Views of the new specifications were met with disapproval and when asked whether the new specifications made it easier for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding about media, the response was as follows:


It would be interesting to uncover the reasons why the new specifications were seen with such a degree of disapproval.


There is a view among critics of MS that is easy and less rigorous than other subjects, but this view isn’t supported by the evidence.


Here, 55% of MS teachers disagreed that it was easier for students to get top grades in MS than other subjects. Indeed, the amount of reading and criticality employed in the reading and analysis of media texts sometimes comes as a surprise to media students, who have imagined MS to be an “easy” option. Thus, we find that another popular myth about MS has been debunked.


When respondents were asked if “senior staff in my institution have encouraged students to opt for Media Studies”, most of them (43) neither agreed nor disagreed. However, what is interesting is that 39 respondents agreed. It would be interesting to see what factors are involved in this response. (See graph below).



3. Narratives

In qualitative analysis, personal narratives help us to uncover the stories behind the numbers, hence I was keen to analyse the more considered replies and identify the possible reasons why there has been a decrease in the numbers of students taking MS.


Regarding the way in which students see MS, one media teacher (interview 1) at [redacted institution] said:


As this is only my second year teaching, it’s hard for me to draw any conclusion at this point but I would say that students are extremely ‘inspired’ by YouTubers and TikTokers: they want to create content but are reluctant to question the message they are conveying in their production.


It’s always been difficult trying to relate to students the importance of theory with regards to practice. Content cannot be created without first understanding the principles and mechanics behind new media production. The distinction between MS as an academic field and Media Production as a vocational field needs to be emphasised more strongly. Perhaps there is scope for a praxis module within courses? Whatever the case, MS specs need to be updated so that they better reflect the world that the students inhabit.


Local economic factors also appear to play a part in the availability and take-up of MS courses, as this teacher (interview 2) remarked:


I think a number of factors are impacting the number of students studying Media Studies. In my local area there is a focus on STEM subjects due to the local industry focus on engineering. There are also more opportunities for curriculum links with companies etc linked to STEM, Health & Social Care and Business in our local area. [redacted location] is rather out of the way and students wishing to pursue careers in creative subjects need to move further and further away to do so after college but the area is one where a lot of students don’t have the funds/parental support etc to do so. Less (sic) schools teach Media Studies so students often have no idea/experience of Film/Media when they start looking at college courses - I feel we are also somewhat down the bottom of the list in terms of subjects promoted to students - often being last on the list with Performing Arts, Drama and Music.


Here, not only are local economic factors cited as a driver in the decline of MS, but once again, we see the common perception that it isn’t a serious subject, which thus leads to the common complaint that there are no prospects for employment in the local area, meaning that students and, more importantly, parents don’t see it as worthwhile. Thus, STEM subjects are regarded as having a greater academic value than MS, Music or Drama and so, to use a Bourdieusian (2018) formulation, the cultural capital offered by STEM can be exchanged or transformed into economic capital and is thus seen as having a greater social value. Yet this view ignores the economic capital value of new media and the way content can be created for social media with a fraction of the resources needed for production on legacy media platforms (television, radio and so on).


Although, some SLTs were often criticised for having negative views of MS, there were some leaders who were very supportive of their MS courses and, in some cases, have provided more resources to meet the demand. In these institutions, MS attracted an increased number of students and is a very popular course. This teacher said:


This is my eleventh year teaching at the institution and I have to say that I have never seen anything other than strong SLT support for the subjects we teach.


This teacher found themselves in an interesting situation.


I have a supportive SLT but I’m a high performing subject and cost them nothing as I don’t have any resources. I rely on smartphones and limited IT access for NEA. This year I have actually had a huge rise in Media number from 10 in 2019 to 38 this year. Interestingly several have mentioned influences from the pandemic…like Joe Wicks!


Although, this particular teacher had a supportive SLT, they had neither the resources nor the financial support needed for effective delivery and, because young people have ready access to their own handheld devices, there might be a reluctance by SLT to properly fund and resource media departments with the standard of equipment needed for students to develop their practical skills and produce professional quality media.


It’s interesting how this MS course has seen an increase in numbers despite being under-resourced. Here, Joe Wicks’ fitness videos have clearly had an impact on the thinking of this institution’s SLT.


The same teacher responded to question 3 (How do you see the future of your media and film courses in your institution in both the short and long term?). They were positive and said that their “pass rates were their strength”. However, they admitted that they didn’t see it as…


…expanding very much which is a shame not to I think I have the high recruitment numbers I have this time again, it’s a high birth rate year.

A teacher in interview 4 also had a supportive SLT


SLT are very supportive and want to see Film & Media Studies back as a regular option due to its historical success with both results and engagement.


However the danger of no longer offering MS or Film Studies would mean a loss of students and ultimately a loss of revenue, the same teacher said:


If our SLT decided, for example, to no longer offer Film Studies as an option, this would lead to 50+ students potentially enrolling in rival institutions just a few miles down the road.


Although, the SLT mentioned in interview 5 didn’t discourage students from taking MS and Film Studies, resources, or the lack of them, were mentioned as a factor in attracting students.


Where I work now, SLT do not talk about the subjects in this way, students are encouraged to take any combination of courses that interest them and all subjects are valued. However, the courses are very under resourced and a lack of technical equipment has made it hard to recruit and student numbers have fallen over the last three years to a very tiny cohort. I have asked SLT to invest in editing software and a dedicated classroom for film and media, to help combat this, which has happened and I am really pleased and I am hopeful that this will help with recruitment for next year.


The importance of providing editing software, proper equipment and a dedicated classroom were cited as possible ways in which to combat the decrease in students taking MS and Film. If potential students see well-resourced and dedicated classrooms for MS, then they will respond positively by enrolling on the course. Few students find the idea of working in poorly-equipped classrooms attractive.


One institution bucked the trend and saw an increase in students taking MS.


Our numbers have grown not shrunk. We have expanded Year 12 Film Studies (up from 60 to 74) and are over-full with six sets for Year 12 Media Studies (up from 120 to 130). We suspect that this may be for a number of reasons: one local school has shut its Sixth Form (not financially viable), another has reduced down the range of A Levels they offer, we've started Criminology which is proving enormously popular and so our numbers as a Centre have grown and possibly our reputation.


This institution benefitted from the closure of a local Sixth Form, hence the reason for the increase in student numbers. The same teacher, when asked what strategies they used to recruit students, said:


Given that we couldn't hold open days because of the pandemic, I am really surprised that our numbers have grown. We usually do a few open evenings each year and a Saturday. We have lots of exciting things going on in the classrooms for prospective students to get involved in. I think we also trade off the back of the reputation of the college itself - it's now huge (largest in London) and has a really big, high profile, multi-media ad campaign every year to attract students from all over London and the home counties which seems to work. We are lucky in that we have the budget to do this (one advantage of being part of an enormous group of colleges).


Here, a marketing campaign that traded on this institution’s reputation clearly played a role in recruiting students. This college is also part of a large group of colleges and such groups tend to have access to better funding. Smaller colleges obviously don’t have the financial means to ‘blitz’ their local areas with a massive marketing campaign and have to rely on former students to promote their courses. Moreover, establishing a reputation takes time and for some smaller colleges, time and money are in very short supply.


Continuity in MS teaching was mentioned by many respondents and, in some colleges, when media teachers retire or leave to take up a teaching job at another institution, they aren’t replaced ‘like-for-like’, so the course is left to wither on the vine. Furthermore, the increased workload caused by a change in specs also contributed to the decline of media teaching at some colleges as the respondent in Interview 4 remarked.


Used to be a well established media dept with lots of take up but I left for a couple of years and it fell away to nothing.


In this case, the respondent returned to the school from which they’d left and is now “slowly building it back” but has to deal with a lack of resources. So, it appears that in some cases, funding and resources are to blame. The same respondent also noted now that their school has since been “academised” there is now more money available for MS. It is not clear whether the respondent in this interview was invited by the academy to return to take charge of media teaching.


There isn’t just a misunderstanding of the role MS plays in education, there’s a lack of respect for the subject. This is from interview 9:


In previous school in the UK - they decided not to hire a replacement media specialist because they knew the numbers had dropped for enrolment that year. Is this because ‘career advisors’ or other teachers inform students that ‘if they want to go to a good uni’ they should probably take more ‘serious’ subjects like English or History. Despite the changes that have been implemented into the curriculum it doesn’t feel as though our subject is yet to be respected as far as it should in the UK and more locally within comprehensive teaching.


If there’s no respect for MS, then the course it likely to be under-resourced and even marginalised. The examination authorities also bear some responsibility, since it is they who are responsible for constructing the curriculum.


From my own personal experience of teaching Media Studies at A and AS Level, I can concur with this teacher’s view, which suggests that not only is MS seen as a less-than-serious subject, but in order to be admitted to a “good uni”, there is an insistence on the part of advisers that students need to take “serious” subjects, which are typically English, History or Mathematics. Sometimes, Media Studies is a seen as an “easy” fourth option. However, once it becomes apparent to the student that they may have to read serious texts, grapple with theories, and apply criticality to issues of representation, this view quickly falls away. I can remember asking a group of AS MS students what they wanted to do when they finished college. One student told me that they intended to study medicine and an adviser told her to take MS as a fourth option. This view of MS as an “optional extra” is all too common.


The respondent in interview 4 now works at an “international institution” at which the media department is better resourced and better funded.


I feel awful saying this but… do schools struggle with media because the teachers are not specialists? I cringe when a media department is run by the head of English who hasn’t got a scooby! Our subject is a different language, you got to love it to teach it.


This is a perfectly good point because students know when a teacher has little or no affinity with the subject they’re teaching. Students respond well to teachers who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their chosen subject.


One teacher offered this criticism of vocational MS:


I didn't like teaching BTEC at all. I found the specification to be extremely vague and the lack of exam meant that student engagement was quite low. The endless coursework was numbing and there are virtually no resources or helpful CPD. I think schools keep the BTEC qualification because it is relatively easy to award a Pass/ tweak grades/teach the coursework so that there is minimum critical reflection and effort coming from the students.


The same teacher described vocational MS as “negative”, and that “Students do not take it as seriously as a GCSE or A Level qualification because of its reputation”. Generally, A Level MS and even GCSE MS are both seen as more ‘academic’ than the vocational post-16 MS courses (of which there are three: the Pearson qualification, which was the old BTEC – now called Creative Digital Media Production; Cambridge (Digital Media) and UAL (Creative Media and Production) Yet the more vocational and ‘hands-on’ nature of vocational MS attracts students who don’t see themselves as being particularly academic.


Regarding the more academic nature of A Level MS, one respondent noted that regarding representation, the students at their college found it hard to relate to because in their mind there was “too much thinking required”. In one school, the International Baccalaureate in Film was very popular and many students found it enjoyable and tended to work harder.


Regarding Film Studies, more generally, this course seemed to be popular but like MS, it was seen as a “fourth option”. GCSE MS comes in for similar criticism and the specifications for this course have been described as “poor” with too much focus on “old school media”. One respondent suggested that GCSE MS could be offered as a vocational option alongside GCSE Film Studies – something that, while might have been possible under previous iterations of GCSE MS, is probably harder to do with the post 2017 specifications.


2. Conclusions and recommendations

From the data, it’s clear that the numbers of students taking MS either in schools or at colleges is in decline (there are some exceptions in individual institutions) but this decline can and should be arrested. There are a number of factors involved in this decline, not least of which is the marginalisation of MS as a “fourth option”. There are, however, many school and college leaders who either don’t understand MS or appreciate its value in equipping students with the kind of literacy of media texts that is typically found in other scholastic areas like English Literature, for example. Indeed, there is some overlap between MS and Film Studies. This, by no means, applies to all institutions and there were some where MS is thriving and SLTs are fully supportive and provide the necessary resources to deliver their courses. A fully equipped media classroom is vital for attracting students. It is no good hoping that students will join a MS course that is using analogue equipment recorders and outdated software in an unsuitable classroom. Schools and colleges need to make a better effort to ensure that there are adequate resources and suitable classrooms for MS.


Examination boards have also been slow to develop critiques of new media, particularly digital media. Many respondents commented on the lack of interest shown in social media by the examination bodies, who are responsible for setting the content of specifications (albeit under the supervision of Ofqual). This is quite worrying and as many respondents pointed out, this is a possible reason for the lack of student interest in MS.


The focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by many school leaders has also been cited by many teachers as a factor in the decline in interest in MS. This pressure has come from government education ministers and thus, many schools have an eye on their place in the league tables. In some areas of the country, STEM is seen as having a greater exchange value than MS or the Arts. Indeed, there needs to be a clearer and bolder case made for MS and the distinction between it and Media Production needs to be strongly emphasised.


There is also a shortage of specialist media teachers and some respondents were concerned how they weren’t being replaced when they retired. Some teachers, who had responsibility for media teaching, also taught other subjects. This can be easily addressed.


This report recommends the following:

  1. Examination bodies need to consider the role of social media in the lives of young people; this must be reflected in curriculum design. Although so-called “legacy media”, like newspapers, radio and television, are seen as out of date, they remain an important part of the media field and certain papers, namely those owned by Rupert Murdoch, continue to wield a great deal of influence on Britain’s political landscape. However, newspapers should form a smaller part of MS teaching than is currently the case.

  2. Examination boards need to keep abreast of current developments in the mass media. This means avoiding case studies of girl or boy groups that are no longer current. The boards have a duty to ensure specifications are updated.

  3. MS needs better funding. However, I recognise that for some schools and colleges, this is not possible. MS also needs dedicated classrooms for viewing and editing. Again, I recognise that this isn’t possible for schools and colleges that have a limited amount of space.

  4. Make senior leaders aware of the importance of MS and the role it plays in media literacy. Here, it may be necessary to remind SLTs of how MS plays a vital role in developing students critical thinking skills. Indeed, MS is well-placed for students to understand more about disinformation and “fake news”.

  5. Similarly, SLTs need to be aware of the potential for MS as a “recruitment positive” which can bring students into an institution in a way that some other courses cannot.

  6. The dedicated MS education pathway for teachers needs to be better marketed and a stronger case needs to be made for specialisation. Many MS teachers have retired and aren’t replaced. Instead, teachers with little or no affinity with, or experience of, the subject are asked to fill in. MS education pathways also need to be properly advertised and funded.

  7. Examination bodies need to work more closely with media educators to address some of the above issues.

  8. Given the lack of knowledge of MS displayed by politicians, the subject needs a parliamentary champion.


References

Bourdieu, P. (2018). The forms of capital (pp. 78-92). Routledge.

Buckingham, D. (2019). The Media Education Manifesto. John Wiley & Sons.

Golding, P. (2019). Media studies in the UK. Publizistik, 64(4), 503-515.

Philo, G (ed). (2014). The Glasgow media group reader, vol. II: Industry, economy, war and politics. Routledge.





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