I have a confession to make. In my youth I made some rash decisions, fell in with a bad crowd…and ended up taking GCSE Media Studies. It wasn’t entirely my fault – I was to some extent pushed into it by the limited options open to me when picking subjects – but ultimately I have to take responsibility for it. No one forced me into it; I could have taken Geography.
To make matters worse, it turned out that most of the lazy stereotypes about it being a useless doss subject were absolutely true. I spent two years bored out of my skull trying to conjure up an interest in the history and conventions of the music video and pretending not to hate most of the rest of the class, did as little work as humanly possible and somehow got an OK grade.
All this is by way of preamble to admitting that when I read this article about the comments about ‘worthless qualifications’ (with particular reference to Media Studies) made by Barnaby Lenon – Head of Harrow School and presumably the new darling of the rightwing press – I kind of felt he had a point. Don’t get me wrong; the way he phrased his remarks do make it abundantly clear that he’s a snobbish insufferable knob-end. But in much the same way that a stopped clock is right twice a day, snobbish insufferable knob-ends are capable of occasionally getting things right. Media Studies GCSE, unless the syllabus has changed considerably in the six or seven years since I studied it, is fairly easy, extremely dull and pretty much a waste of time. The broader argument, however, is still pretty full of holes.
First, while GCSEs are (or at least in my experience were) pretty shit, and while it’s perfectly plausible that a C at GCSE isn’t equivalent to a pass under the old O-level system (as Lenon claims), traditional, supposedly hard subjects were pretty much a joke at GCSE as well as far as I can remember – English Literature largely consisted of being told exactly what we were supposed to think about whatever text we were studying in order to make the examiners happy, while French barely left me capable of ordering a drink in a câfé. I’m entirely happy to concede that GCSEs need reforming or replacing, but I don’t really think that the status of non-traditional subjects has much do with this argument. Second, the fact that more pupils are studying Media than science subjects is played up as very important (albeit by Michael Gove, who agrees with Lenon, rather than the man himself). But is this really evidence that the former is easier? Might there be some other explanation, such as ooh, I don’t know, a chronic shortage of science teachers in the state sector?
Third, and most importantly, does this strike anyone else as a fairly naked diversionary tactic? The argument that the greatest barrier to social mobility is that too many comprehensive-school students study Leisure and Tourism rather than physics and German might be a bit more convincing if it wasn’t coming from the Head of a school which charges annual fees of 28 grand per pupil. Shockingly enough, boys that are sent there tend to do pretty well, but somehow I don’t think this is entirely down to a lack of filthy modern subjects to study. Aside from anything else, Harrow actually offers both Photography and Business Studies at A-level, and proudly proclaims that ‘[p]hotography is a very popular A-level subject with an extremely high percentage of pupils achieving grade A’. (Nothing to do with it being a soft option, or because of the great facilities the school is able to afford because of its extortionate fees, of course – it’s probably just the Harrow ethos.) A system that effectively lets rich parents buy wealth and status for their children via academic success at school is never going to be equitable no matter how many kids on free school meals you drag into the comprehensives’ chemistry labs. Lenon’s pronouncements are a rather weak attempt to draw attention away from that, and should be treated as such.