Had criticism been based on the detail of the specification that would be one thing, but frustratingly, it seems to be based on a blanket judgment that such texts are too down market to be worth studying. This attitude fails to recognise the potential value of studying examples of popular media. No one is saying that it should constitute the entire content of GCSE English but I would critical of an English specification that focused solely on any one type of text.
So here are my five reasons why popular media should be included in English GCSE.
1. The creative industries in the UK are a huge part of our economy, representing 7.3% of the UK’s GVA (Gross value added) and accounting for over half a million jobs. It’s a sector that has been booming in recent years growing by 6% a year from 1997-2005 according to the DCMS (double the average across sectors). Jobs in this sector are not for the most part to be found in publishing and shipping crates of Shakespeare plays. That doesn’t make Shakespeare any less valuable but makes pretending popular media doesn’t exist short sighted.
2. Businesses and entrepreneurs in particular need to know how to communicate messages about products and brands to mass audiences. Understanding how magazines like Heat appeal to their readers, how they make themselves easily accessible and how they influence people is crucial if we are to equip young people to be entrepreneurial, create strong brands and market themselves and their businesses.
Such instrumental preoccupations may sound low-brow and insufficiently ‘cultured’ to some but that doesn’t make them any less important to the economy and young people’s future prospects. Of course, some might argue that young people have sufficient exposure to popular media as it is and don’t need more, but exposure isn’t the same as learning to read texts critically. If young people were to read Shakespeare at home all the time that wouldn’t make studying him in school and learning to analyse it any less important. Yes Shakespeare is more complex and long lasting but the media doesn’t have mass appeal by coincidence; it is cleverly designed to do so and understanding how it does this is a valuable part of learning.
3. Young people are hugely influenced by the media that surrounds them. Their role models, aspirations and body image are shaped by magazines like Heat and shows like Britain’s Got Talent. Being able to understand the way they are being influenced makes them more critical consumers, less likely to accept being told what they ‘should’ be like and less permeable to advertising.
4. Part of the role of education is to enrich our lives by giving us an understanding of what is going on around us. When I studied Media Studies GCSE (yes. I took media studies GCSE), I remember noticing a real change in how I saw the world around me. I’d look at adverts and recognise the techniques being used, understand how they were affecting me and so on. For me, part of the role of education is to enrich the way we engage with the world around us. When so much of it is comprised of popular media it makes sense to develop a more thinking relationship with it.
5. Text types are partly understood in comparison to each other. Whilst the differences between Heat Magazine and Shakespeare are glaring, defining and illustrating these differences (between figurative and non-figurative language for example) through contrast makes it much easier to pick out key features in the latter. Yes there are more “literary” texts that could show this but using texts at opposite ends of the spectrum is a great way to illustrate the crucial link between text purpose and style.
For those who have assumed the role of cultural gate keepers, it can be all too easy to proscribe curriculum content as not high-brow enough and to announce yet more “dumbing down.” This would be fair enough if the purpose of English GCSE were limited to initiating the next generation into our literary pantheon. But it’s not.