Last week the government's latest plan was to extend compulsory schooling to 18. Good idea. My worry though is that any educational progress for disengaged youngsters will be undercut by Victorian ideas about what counts as suitable education. The much maligned "meedja studies", a massively popular post-16 subject, is a case-in-point.
It seems odd, but some of the biggest unconscious snobbery towards media studies A level and other subjects like it is found among the liberal, education-loving elite. Many dinner-party intellectuals are comfortable decrying the "easy" subjects on offer in schools today as they long for a return to compulsory foreign languages and the classics. Mary Beard in these pages last week talked up Latin as a good social leveller due to its intellectual rigour. Teachers are even worse: in a week when a discerning eye towards the moving image would have been advantageous, colleagues berated media studies as "pointless" and "a sure-fire way to push up the school figures". That's quite some disapproval for a subject that is the most popular and successful in our sixth form.
Media is a testing subject; statistically it is one of the hardest to get an A in. It mobilises useful skills and combines intellectual stretch with competencies that students (and our economy) need for the future. Comparing it to Latin is informative. Whereas media students are asked to write a mini-dissertation (the only A level subject to require this) and use cutting-edge software such as Adobe Premier, my sixth form Latin teacher asked me to memorise long chunks of Virgil's Aeneid. I can still recite the verses now: "It was that time of the night when sleep first begins for suffering mortals." My memory was thoroughly tested. But did I learn any of the skills necessary for success in all workplaces? Was I thoroughly stretched? Did I even write an essay? Receiving an A in Latin A level is statistically more likely than almost any other subject. Not because it is only selected by a bright few who are privately educated, but because if you have a good memory, you can score well. To achieve in media (and in life), you need more than a good memory.
I observed a media lesson last Wednesday. First, every student's technical vocabulary was excellent and higher-level thinking skills were being utilised constantly. Secondly, critical research was well advanced with many students building on a good grasp of theory with practical examples. One student was even referencing her work in a sophisticated, undergraduate way. Most impressive of all, however, was the fact that these students were highly motivated and engaged in an intellectual and practical capacity. I have observed many other A-level lessons, but none have taken students so far out of their comfort zones.
We all have a stake in ensuring that young people are engaged in education. So perhaps we should start by respecting the subjects that students are engaged in. We claim to support choice, but underneath pour scorn on the choices students make. Ben in 13T summed it up well: "People should not talk until they have tried it."
I am not saying we should scrap Latin A level, I am saying we should support students and their academic successes instead of assuming that only traditional subjects have intrinsic and intellectual value. If we do this, we may just be able to make a go of compulsory post-16 education.
Personally, I'm always disturbed when debates which evolve into an either-or situation when they don't really have to (e.g. endless arguments with one or both of my kids that it's okay to be a fan of both CFL and NFL football). It's interesting to see the 'practical' subject here being the 'underdog' though ...