Obituary: Rick Instrell, visionary media educator

Rick Instrell
Rick Instrell
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Rick Instrell, media educator. Born: 6 April 1947. Died 21 July 2018, aged 71.

Rick Instrell, who has died at the age of 71, was one the pioneers of film and media education in Scotland in its early days of the late 1970s and 1980s and he continued to be a major force until his death in Edinburgh Western Infirmary on 21 July.

Rick was born in London in 1947 where his father was from, but the family moved north to his mother’s home town, Broughty Ferry, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer in the NCR ­factory.

On leaving school Rick worked for DC Thomson, home of Oor Wullie, The Beano and The Sunday Post, though it would be a mistake to assume this was where his interest in the media began. He was interested in a number of arts, both classical and ­popular, and felt strongly that the education system should validate the latter as well as the former.

He went to Edinburgh ­University to study maths and physics which he later taught at schools in the Edinburgh area. His love for film and the desire to introduce it into the education system saw him attend summer schools organised by the British Film Institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

These were high-powered events which did much for the establishment of teaching about film in the UK, where teachers and academics, film industry personnel and film lovers would discuss new ­ideas.

What he experienced there he ­carried with him into one of his early teaching jobs at Forrester High School in Edinburgh where he was a founder member of the ­Forrester Media Group (FMG), teachers animated by the radical critique of education and the transformative potential of, not just film, but the wider media studies which they saw as an agent of change.

A cross-disciplinary grassroots ­collective, FMG would produce the first accredited course for media studies in Scotland’s schools and colleges. Rick and his colleagues linked up with like-minded teachers in other parts of ­Scotland and a number of ­conferences followed, leading to the establishment of the Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) in 1984. In this enterprise they were ­supported by some visionary figures in the ­educational establishment such as Robbie Robertson and David Butts. From AMES’s formation, Rick played a major role and served on its management committee for almost all of its existence, up to its most recent meeting in April.

The first significant presence of media studies in the formal curriculum was the Scotvec Modules. This was followed a few years later by the Higher Still programme which put media studies on a par with other subjects.

Rick co-wrote the original Higher course even if he ­disowned some of its onerous assessment practices which had little to do with the radical aspirations of the discipline. He was keen to introduce ­cutting-edge theorists (such as Roland Barthes) into Higher media studies but was wary at the way this could become an arid box-ticking exercise. By this time Rick had moved to Pathhead Academy in ­Midlothian, where he became principal teacher of computing studies.

Rick often showed his impatience at the reluctance of the educational establishment to embrace change and what he saw as fossilised ways of thinking. He made enemies in the corridors of power but he did not have an outsized ego: the ferocity of his criticism was disinterested.

On one occasion he decided to withdraw from too prominent a role in the AMES committee because he feared he had “pissed off too many ­people in power” and it would affect AMES’s fortunes. However he underestimated the regard, however grudging, he was held in by many of those same officials.

While Rick welcomed the progress made by media studies and media education in general, he would constantly question not only the role of media studies but the functioning of teaching and learning.

Many of these ideas were developed in the columns of AMES’s biannual Media Education Journal. He wrote many articles on film, television, the press, advertising (his analyses of Irn Bru ads was priceless), the press etc., but his longer deeply-considered pieces show that his ­educational radicalism remained with him to the end.

Rick retired from teaching in 2008 and set up as a CPD ­provider and media literacy consultant which he continued to do until his recent ­illness. The effectiveness of his courses is attested to by the comments on his passing on the AMES Facebook page, such as “I use so many of his resources every week. He will leave a big gap in media education both here and further afield”.

When The Role of the Media question was introduced to Higher media (a development Rick always advocated) the lack of adequate training left many teachers uncertain about whether what they were doing was appropriate.

After Rick’s CPD session one teacher’s confidence soared so much that her students jokingly proposed setting up a shrine to ‘Saint Rick’, who found it hilarious that, as an atheist, he now couldn’t believe in ­himself!

He also did sessions regularly at the AMES conferences (of which he was the main organiser) which were always lucid and incisive, and ­delivered with Rick’s characteristic humour.

I suppose most media teachers, as well as studying the phenomenon of fandom, are big fans themselves and Rick certainly was. He was a great admirer of David Lynch, especially the Twin Peaks TV series. He even loved Tarkovsky’s most exacting films and was a Mahler enthusiast. Although he hated the Daily Telegraph, he would buy it from time to time because he said it had some of the best obituaries of the stars of prog rock – another of his fandoms. He was also a long-term ­season ticket holder at Dundee United.

We often met in the pub after AMES meetings where the conversation was as likely to be dominated by football as by teaching media. He would put me right on the ­difference between Arab (United fan) and The Terrors (the team) and we went a couple of times together to Celtic Park and Tannadice.

As a loyal Arab, he supported his team during the ­halcyon days of the mid-1980s (when United beat Barcelona home and away) and kept faith even during the current years of the locust.

He would speak of his family, of his wife Catriona and their caring for their daughter Lesley, through her protracted death from MS. He was proud of his grandchildren, Lewis and Rosa, of whom he spoke a lot. The death in a cycle ­accident of his friend and ­collaborator, Frank Gormley, affected him enormously. Despite his sometimes truculent nature, he was much loved by friends.

I will end with an anecdote from Margaret Hubbard, a friend and colleague from the early days. It was the start of the summer holidays and they were outside the pub speaking of holiday plans:

“I was going to India. He was going to Broughty Ferry. I remember him beaming as he said, ‘I am taking my bucket and spade to the beach.’ For me this was a new insight into him. He was so much a Dundonian that a holiday on the beach at Broughty Ferry carried with it decades of memories. His mind raced with new ideas; but his roots were firm.”

Des Murphy
Editor, The Media Education Journal