Broadcasters tune in to ways of helping pupils

HERE is the news from a school near you, writes Rick Instrell.

March included the opening of the Sky Academy Skills Studios in Livingston. Picture: Contributed

March was a good month for cooperation between schools and major broadcasting corporations. We had BBC’s School Report involving more than 1,000 schools (76 in Scotland) in the creation of news programmes. We also saw the launch of Sky Academy Skills Studios in Livingston. This state-of-art facility will give Scottish school pupils hands-on experience of broadcast quality cameras, green screens and touchscreen edit tables in four studios. Teachers can choose from a menu of 20 curriculum-related topics for upper primary and secondary. Pupils will write, shoot and edit a TV report to show to parents and fellow pupils.

As a cynical old media studies teacher it is easy to dismiss Sky’s initiative as a marketing ploy aimed at future customers and the investment a drop in the ocean compared to its 2014 profit of £1,260 million. But my cynicism was mitigated by the inspirational commitment of Sky Academy staff as much as the hi-tech. And there is no doubt pupils will love this.

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It prompted memories of the roots of Scottish media education which led to the formation of the Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) in 1983. In those days there was a coming together of media academics, Scottish curriculum bodies and the Scottish Film Council alongside grass-roots teachers. Media professionals also took a strong interest. At an early conference in Aberdeen our keynote speaker was Harold Evans, ex-editor of the Sunday Times and author of several books on journalism. We also had another distinguished journalist, Alastair Hetherington, then research professor in media studies at Stirling University.

In one workshop I led a creative exercise entitled Radio Covingham. This lo-tech simulation gave participants 50 minutes to create and present a ten-minute radio news broadcast on cassette recorder. I divided delegates into four teams and told them to run their editorial team however they wished. Teams dealt with national and local news items and one team had to create a package which responded to readers’ letters.

As the delegates engaged with the reports, press releases and letters I noticed that one of the team working enthusiastically on the mundane letters’ task was former Guardian editor and ex-controller of BBC Scotland, Alastair Hetherington! Despite the no-tech approach, the excitement in the classroom was palpable as the deadline approached. The programme was recorded live and unedited. Much laughter accompanied the subsequent playback and debrief. This experience will be replicated again and again in Sky Academy, though much enhanced by Sky’s hi-tech.

Nowadays Covingham-type exercises can be done more effectively with free, but sophisticated, audio recording and editing software such as Audacity.

Teachers and pupils can also inform their creative practice through excellent online resources provided by the BBC Academy and learn the tricks of the trade around writing news stories, news presenting and conducting interviews.

So we currently have a welcome educational input from Sky Academy and BBC Academy, but what of the academy itself? Several Scottish universities played a key role in media education’s first steps. But their influence has waned over the years. Despite conducting much excellent media research, findings remain within the province of academia and fail to be disseminated to the wider public or to teachers.

There have been several initiatives by universities to establish media and moving image education training for serving teachers but none has lasted more than one or two years. Pre-service training is generally inadequate, with trainee teachers lucky to receive one or two days on media. Given the media-saturated lives of our pupils and the proven motivational power of media-related lessons, this seems particularly remiss.

In recent years there have been demands to make academic research socially useful and not simply an outlet for the curiosity of a few scholars. Media academics try to describe and understand developments in media and society. From this evidential base they then consider what needs to be done in media and cultural policy. This is, of course, where social values come in and those with a public service view of media are likely to disagree with free market neoliberals.

The BBC and Sky Academy initiatives show that both public service and commercial broadcasters are using their expertise and resources for developing pupils’ confidence and creativity. It would be good if academia could also contribute their expertise to help teachers develop culturally informed and critical citizens, able both to evaluate media content and contribute to the making of vibrant, socially responsible culture.

• Rick Instrell is a member of the management committee of the Association for Media Education in Scotland. The 2015 AMES conference Into Media tales place on 13 June in Stirling. Details at