2013-12-16_Julian headshotImproved media literacy is often touted in policy circles as a key to successful digital transition. But new research suggests that the UK’s early progress in media literacy has stalled. Giving a preview of an extensive audit of UK media literacy due to be published next year, the University of Bournemouth’s Julian McDougall argues that the UK is lagging behind in funding, training and policy, despite being a leader in media studies scholarship.

Responding to a call from the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) programme and the French National Research Agency,  Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green from LSE, and I have produced an audit of media and information education in the UK. Although the report will by published along with those from other countries in spring next year, we recently presented our finding to EU Member States representatives and so I can give you a preview of our findings.[1]

We were required to cover formal and informal education, regulation and co-regulation, all ages and settings and extend this to all aspects of ‘information education’, spanning access to the internet, active citizenship in digital contexts and e-safety for children. The combined European report seeks to examine public policies, human and financial resources, key agents in schools, business and civil society and to make recommendations for future research and policy to Unesco and the European Commission

The remarkably broad scope for an audit of media literacy is a problem we address directly in the report. Policy and funding should be directed towards the tens of thousands of people who are engaged in the critical study of, and training in media every year in UK education and that a mapping exercise should be undertaken to evaluate achievement in Media Studies against the various definitions of, and criteria for, media and digital literacy circulating around European networks.

The UK is rich with expertise, energy and leadership for media and information education, and to a significant extent is the envy of other European nations in this respect, but deeply entrenched prejudice against ‘media studies’ means that promoting media literacy through schools is continually undermined.

In tracing the genealogy of media literacy education in the UK, we identified three phases:

    • Pre-OFCOM: the establishment of Media Studies, Film Studies and other related areas in the curriculum.
    • 1997 – 2011 New Labour Government and OFCOM media literacy intervention with some correspondence to Media Studies
    • Post-OFCOM Coalition Government, discontinuation of media literacy strategies

Towards the mapping exercise, auditing the ‘state of play’ for media literacy education in the current post-OFCOM phase, we audited four inter-related and overlapping categories– (1) mainstream (formal) education – the study of media in the secondary, further and higher education curriculum, with specifications, qualifications and measurable assessment outcomes – Media Studies (and vocational equivalents), Film Studies and Media / non-literary textual analysis in English; (2) broader, but more variable and less measurable examples of media literacy across the curriculum and extra-curricular activity facilitated by educational institutions – for example within literacy education in the primary curriculum, Citizenship, History, Art, Sociology; (3) e-safety policy in the school system and (4)  media and information literacy / education outside of the formal educational system.

In auditing capacity building, we identified a scarcity of funding and training and a discursive contradiction between support for creative industry employability, digital literacy and e-safety and derision towards, neglect of and undermining (through UCAS tariff distinctions, for example) media education where it already exists for thousands of young people.

At the same time, the recent Next Gen Report, well received by policy-makers, fails to locate media education as a context for teaching digital programming and coding. Furthermore, we predict that the combined effect of the secondary curriculum reforms proposed by the secretary of state and this response to the Next Gen report will place media education in the UK in further ‘limbo’, between the cultural value afforded to English Literature and Art as academic / creative disciplines for their own sake, the vocational importance assumed for games and effects education within the STEM subject cluster and the ‘outsourcing’ of e-safety and online protection to parent – whole school contractual arrangements.

In summary, we make three clear and compelling recommendations:

(1) the composite model of media literacy currently provided by the various EU and EC strategies is too broad in scope and ambition for mainstream education to ‘deliver’ and therein lies a fundamental mismatch between the objectives of media literacy as articulated in policy and the capacity of education as the agent for its development in society;

(2) to coherently match Media Studies in the UK to the policy objectives for media literacy expressed in European policy, Government funding (for teacher training), support and endorsement for Media Studies is essential;

(3) funding should be prioritised for broader research into the capacity for Media Studies in schools and colleges to develop media and information literacy as defined by the European Union.

Since the New Labour tenure, the policy rhetoric surround media literacy, digital literacy and information literacy has been the site of discursive confusion and dissensus. Indeed, some would reflect on a lost opportunity when academics were invited to contribute to OFCOM’s media literacy strategy but arguably failed to seize the moment. Others view the allocatin of media literacy to a regulatory body, overseen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and not to the Department for Education as key to the failure of implementation.  Yet, even during the ‘OFCOM moment’ there was no, to use the EC wording “legal mandate” nor “formal accounting and evaluating mechanism” at state level for media literacy. The UK needs to wake up to the fact that our media education is the
envy of Europe and bridge the funding, training and policy gap to take the
lead in empowering its citizens with 21st century literacies.

This blog post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.


[1] The report was shared with EU member states’ representatives at a conference convened on 13th and 14th December by the French National Research Agency project TRANSLIT (convergence between computer, media and information literacies), in association with the European network COST “Transforming Audiences/Transforming Societies,” at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.