Vocational Media

Alison Pemberton, The BRIT School

I teach at The BRIT School in South London, perhaps better known for producing musicians and performers, but we also teach young people who aspire to a career within the media industries as content creators, filmmakers, writers and broadcasters. Vocational education is at the heart of the school and as such my manifesto is a vocational media education manifesto.

Manifestos are ultimately about idealism and revolution. With this in mind my vocational media education manifesto is primarily concerned with the following four areas.

1. Student engagement
2. Specialist teaching
3. Development of skills
4. Routes for progression

1. Student engagement

I’m sure many teachers who haven’t experienced a vocational media course would be surprised to find out just how much ‘writing’, theoretical understanding and research that vocational media students complete alongside practical projects and development of technical skills. Vocational education doesn’t just mean ‘making’, look at any of the vocational qualifications on offer from the BTEC diplomas in Creative Media Production or the OCR Nationals and you will see specifications committed to theoretical knowledge and understanding alongside skills development and practice. I believe this variety of teaching and learning is key to student engagement on any media course.

Vocational media education should be concerned with the encouragement of ideas, providing a safe space for students to experiment, to fail and to succeed and to develop their authorial voices in a variety of mediums. Work that students produce should be promoted, valued and recognised. Students should be encouraged to distribute their work whether this is through YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud, broadcast on student radio, Flickr or entered for competitions. The ability to share work with real audiences is vital. Work that is only ever watched or looked at by teachers in the comfort of a media office somehow seems redundant.

In order to maintain student engagement, media teachers have a responsibility to ensure that we are up-to-date and relevant with our resources, teaching methods and ideas in order to engage students and to share in best practice Relying on that old newspaper article that has been photocopied a hundred times or setting the same essay question year after year is not the way to get students actively involved in what Julian McDougall would call ‘subject Media’. If media teachers don’t make their lessons up-to-date, relevant and interactive to the students in front of them, how do they expect their students to be interested in their lesson content? I believe that media teachers shouldn’t be divided amongst those that ‘just teach the theory’ against those who ‘do the video and editing bit’. A good media teacher will be a well rounded theorist and a strong practitioner being able to teach film studies in the morning and demonstrating Final Cut Pro editing techniques in the afternoon. For me theory and practice are and will always be interlinked. This is why I find teaching media so enjoyable and challenging; always trying to use and find new examples, learning new technologies and subject areas; I can’t think of any other subject at 14-19 where this is a prerequisite.

Specialist teaching

I strongly believe that media teachers should have a background in media, whether this is as an ex-industry professional or through the study of media specific subjects at degree or post-graduate level. I do not believe that English teachers who have been forced into teaching the subject or those who teach both subjects are the best models. It belies the importance and credibility of the subject. I believe those who have studied media at degree level have the capacity to truly understand the subject and all of its related fields. However it still makes me somewhat annoyed and frustrated that there are still too few media specific PGCEs that train media teachers without them having to simultaneously train as an English teacher.

My route to becoming a media teacher at The BRIT School has meant a lot of hard work, repetition of qualifications and having no option but to teach some English. In 2001 after finishing my degree there were only one or two institutions offering a specific media PGCE and I think even these had an emphasis on English and the English curriculum in some form. I therefore had to study for a PGCE in post-compulsory education and training (PCET), which meant I could focus solely on teaching media and film alongside some vocational qualifications for 16 years olds and above. I was qualified for FE level only and hence went onto teach at a college. A few years later after the disillusionment of FE, having to produce weekly retention rates, working out achievement rates, constantly knowing value added scores and dealing with redundancies, I traded FE for a secondary school. I was lucky to be employed, as my PGCE (PCET) didn’t have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) meaning legally I wasn’t able to teach anyone under the age of 16. I had to complete a Government Training Programme (GTP) to order to achieve QTS (anyone getting bored of the acronyms?); effectively completing a PGCE twice, only this time also having a full time teaching job at the same time. But what did I have to do in order to gain QTS, that would legally allow me able to teach pre-16 students GCSE Media Studies and BTEC First Diplomas, even though I had taught these qualifications in FE? I had to teach key stage 3 English, specifically my placement asked me to teach year 8s Pride and Prejudice. So in order to be able to effectively deliver media education from 14-19 and to prove my abilities and to get the piece of paper that made me legal, I had to teach Jane Austen. It’s not just me, but this is madness, is it not?

This conundrum has faced nearly every person thinking of becoming a media teacher. Do I focus solely on FE, which often has different pay scales, holiday allowances and structures and become a ‘lecturer’? Or do I focus on secondary schools, which uses the main teachers pay scale, means you might have to teach English or not have great technical resources and become a ‘teacher’? I believe this system and the lack of choice in specific PGCEs or conversion programmes is potentially blocking a lot of excellent prospective media teachers or in the very least quickly generates disaffected media teachers.

Development of skills

Vocational media education should encompass the development of technical, theoretical and creative skills. Students should be ‘getting their hands dirty’ with equipment at every opportunity, making videos, podcasts, taking part in photography shoots etc. in order to develop both their technical and aesthetic skills. Vocational media education shouldn’t and doesn’t ignore ‘writing’ which is often a common misunderstanding of the subject. Written skills through essay writing, producing presentations, research, pre-production paperwork, producing scripts and textual analysis is integral to the ability to communicate.

All subjects have their own specific skills and as I’m sure all media teachers can attest, media courses perhaps encourage the broadest skills of all. Whether this is learning a set of specific and professional software from the Adobe Creative Suite to Final Cut Pro or learning to use a HDV or DSLR camera to using the skills of composition to capture visually interesting work. Or it might be learning how to work in a team, to collaboratively create a television show and learn how to communicate with people, when no-one is talking to each other or being entirely responsible for the organisation of a shoot or perhaps knowing what to do when you realise you’ve gone out to film, your actors haven’t turned up and you’ve forgotten your tape. The skills of organisation, thinking on your feet, communication and group work are just as important as learning depth of field, parallel editing and how to operate a boom.

Routes for progression

I am writing this manifesto knowing that my current year 12 tutor group will potentially be paying in excess of £8000 a year in tuition fees if they chose to attend university.
As someone who only last month paid the last instalment of my student loan, the introduction of higher fees will have a direct and immediate impact on the amount of young people who can afford to attend university. For me, this changes the landscape of post-16 education. What we deliver is now more important than ever. We need to question whether we are providing the correct courses, ensure that we are keeping ourselves up-to-date and relevant and that the content of our courses is appropriate. We need to be able to deliver a curriculum that simultaneously allows students to progress into employment in a media related industry whilst also providing them with a rich curriculum that enables them to continue at higher education if they choose.

On a vocational media course, links with industry is vital. The encouragement of outside speakers, organisations, use of ex-students and organising trips is only going to generate a richer experience for students and help establish discussion and the promotion of ideas. Work experience opportunities are incredibly important, this certainly doesn’t mean that students should automatically be provided with a work placement on every media course, but students should be encouraged to seek out and create opportunities for themselves. If organised correctly, work experience can be more than photocopying and stuffing envelopes. Work based learning allows young people to experience the world of work, for all its positives and negatives, and provides them with some real word experience. Actually being a part of a busy, hectic production company allows people to learn in a way that perhaps is not achievable sitting in a classroom. Ultimately I think work experience can used as a tool for aspiration and progression.

In conclusion, I think vocational media education has over the years had a bad reputation; the Creative Media Diploma certainly hasn’t helped matters. But there is space for A Levels, GCSEs, BTECs and Diplomas to exist alongside one another and they share more commonalities than people give them credit for.

So is there one media manifesto to suit all? Well I feel glad, relieved even, that I am not teaching the same issues, subjects and examples that I was when I first started teaching, how boring would that be! And I continue to be intrigued as to what I will be teaching in ten years time. I don’t think we will ever have one clear and precise media education manifesto; instead we are a rich and diverse community of teachers that are so committed to our subject that we contribute to discussions such as these and get involved in debate about the future of our subject.

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