Last night I went to an interesting seminar at the Watershed Media Centre called ‘Cultural Learning: Young people – schools – creative industries’. It was all about the 8 month relationship the Watershed have built up with Fairfield High School, which has seen a teacher being based at the Watershed one day a week, film & TV professionals working in the school, and the students taking part in projects.
One of the refreshing things about the event was that the residency (for want of a better term) didn’t seem to revolve around the need for the students to make short films, and no films were shown at the event, though the young people were there and talked about their experiences. The residency was focused more on educational experiences for the students and also Continuing Professional Development for the teachers and encouraging whole school change to embrace media literacy across the whole curriculum. This was a good balance and gave the students a rounded experience of media literacy, and not only the easy win of the seduction of production. Dick Penny talked about the importance of schools to embrace the principles of media literacy and the need for young people to create media as well as deconstruct it to fully understand media, creating a Literacy in the fullest sense, and not only a sidelined media literacy. These are ideas I share and have written about previously (see here for a 2005 article for the Westminster Media Forum).
At the event all the teachers were enthusiastic about the educational, social and cultural potential of media professionals working with school students. Those of us who work in community media education know of the realities of this potential, as we have based our whole careers on it. The teachers were advocating for a network to be established which encouraged the partnerships between cultural industries and schools, and of course I applaud that advocacy, as would all those of us who work in community media education, and over the past 10 years or so this argument has been made a number of times, by teachers and us alike. One occasion the call has been heard for example, was when South West Screen in partnership with the Watershed funded the Media Education Hubs in circa 2002 (the one in Bristol ran out of funding circa 2005).
With each new generation of teachers comes a new enthusiasm to work together, which is great, and the Watershed and community media education advocates become the constant agencies who fly the flag of media literacy, so the teachers want to talk and work with us, which is great, but what we don’t possess is any of the clout and capital to actually embed media literacy into the education system, despite the enthusiasm of the teachers.
In 2005 my colleague Rob Mitchell from Firstborn Creatives gave a presentation titled ‘Getting the Head on board’, with primary school teacher Becky Davis from Oldbury Court School. We had worked with the school for a whole academic year, not just making films but also working on Continuing Professional Development for the teachers and encouraging whole school change to embrace media literacy across the whole curriculum. (Ironically, the venue where this talk was given was again at the Watershed!).
Rob & Becky’s talk centred on the cold fact that without the clout of the headteacher, any enthusiasm and good intentions of any individual teacher can count for nothing, rendering a powerful project as a one off event that fails to be built upon. (Luckily at Oldbury Court the headteacher was fully on board.) With headteacher’s power, soon follows capital, the other necessary ingredient needed for any network to work, or media literacy to be more than an idealistic academic theory and turn into an educational reality. For all the best will in the world, the reality is that community media education organisations need funding to turn ideas into interventions. Headteachers are the people to sell the idea to, and it was great to see the headteacher at Fairfield believing in the idea so much, that Anna the teacher is able to spend one day every week off-timetable to be based at the Watershed working alongside its staff. For other teachers in other schools, this is like some kind of mythical holy grail.
The powerful role of public funded organisations such as the Watershed is that they can act as an influential conduit to help build relationships between school management and media production & media education professionals, (and judging by the amount of times I’ve mentioned the Watershed’s events over the years in this article it is clear they have been trying to do this). That was partly the aim of last night’s event, to get that conversation started, and those conversations definitely happened (although it was mostly educationalists and mainstream media professionals present, and unfortunately not actually others from community media education. I’m sure they would have been invited though!).
It would be good now for all of us advocating media literacy to work together to take those conversations to the National Association of Head Teachers, and other such head teacher networks, to now get these conversations turned into strategic systems and naturalised ways of working in their schools, in partnership with the media education sector.
I know this is easier said than done, but I have to remain optimistic that in 10 years time we can have a seminar looking at the distance travelled since media literacy became embedded in the school system.
With that ambition, I also remain optimistic that the enthusiastic teachers of today that champion media literacy, are the headteachers of tomorrow, that by then are still championing media literacy, and leading by example.