Naturally, the agenda changes a little from year to year. This time round, we're disgusted at the increasing variety and popularity of "soft" A-level options. While the number of students taking subjects such as chemistry, maths and German has fallen dramatically, the number doing psychology, religious studies and media studies has rocketed. All this at a time when a report from Durham University states that these are some of the easiest subjects one can take at A-level.
Singled out for particular bile is media studies. The subject, which has only become a member of the A-level family in the past five or so years, examines the increasingly diverse media universe - film, television, newspapers, the internet, advertising and marketing. In a world where institutions are being told to make their subjects "relevant", media studies is the gold standard. There are, after all, a lot of media about. But its appearance as an A-level subject has not impressed traditional educationists.
"The increasing popularity of media studies is symptomatic of a much greater trend," says Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools and a man recently called "the educational right" by Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education and Skills Committee. "I think it's worrying that there has been a decline in students taking traditional subjects."
So why are they taking media studies? "Because it's easier than physics or maths," says Woodhead. "And because young people are increasingly attracted by a career in the media they believe - personally, I think they are deluded - that taking A-level media studies will help them achieve that."
Media studies, like a number of subjects now taught at A-level and even GCSE (law and psychology are just two examples), started life as a new degree subject. Woodhead baulks at this trend. "It is disturbing. A degree subject should have its own body of knowledge, a canon which is exclusive to it as an intellectual discipline. By mixing - as many media studies degree courses have done - many quasi-disciplines together, and then filtering that down to A-level standard, one ends up with a very confusing mixture. In terms of media studies A-level as an intellectual discipline, there is very little coherence."
But the subject's crime is not that it is incoherent, but that it is easy. So how can this muddled subject be the soft option it is made out to be? "It is true that some headteachers have said that media studies is a softer option than - say - science or languages," says The Independent's education editor, Richard Garner. "The statistics, though, do not support the theory that it is easier to get an A-grade in the subject. Last year, for instance, 11 per cent got an A-grade in media studies compared to 22.4 per cent overall. But what that doesn't tell us is whether schools put weaker candidates in for it."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, has his own idea. "The fact that it is more difficult to get an A in media studies reflects the academic ability of candidates, as against the higher average ability of students taking maths, science and modern languages. Media studies, as the statistics from Durham University have shown over many years, is not the only subject in the 'easier' category."
To have an A-grade rate half the national average while the subject is deemed one of the easiest on offer is worrying, but it can only be a natural consequence of turning teatime telly into homework. The problems of low academic achievement must also be linked to the dire set texts on offer. One is hardly likely to have a Dead Poets Society moment when one is studying the first three minutes of the sitcom My Wife and Kids, currently showing on Trouble TV.
There is also a marked strain of anti-intellectualism running through the course guidelines. The latest set of examiners' notes from the assessment body AQA are a revelation. Everywhere one looks, students are encouraged to foster their "personal reactions" to texts. Modernity is the key - anything more than two or three years old is deemed irrelevant. Teachers are reminded that "Pulp Fiction is 10 years old now" and thus not suitable for the course, while students dealing with the 2004 tsunami in the section on British newspapers are praised: "Candidates and centres should be commended on the contemporaneity of this example." Any candidate caught writing about Watergate, one presumes, is instantly failed.
So, where now for media studies? It's popular but flawed, relevant but useless. On the website for Alton College, a sixth-form centre in Hampshire, various students who have taken A-level media studies are asked to give their comments about what they thought of the course. Like all media-studies students, they will have been encouraged to provide their own creative responses to their experiences.
Their remarks are a paradigm of the bland muddle in which the subject currently finds itself. They ranged from the enthusiastic "enjoyable, beneficial and interesting" to the downright messianic "exciting, interesting and challenging". C-grades all round.
Have you been paying attention?
The two final examination papers for media studies A-level account for 60 per cent of the final grade, the rest being made up of coursework, comprised of a project and an essay. Each paper lasts 90 minutes, during which two questions must be answered. Here are some examples of questions from past papers.
Technical Aspects of Moving Image Language and Conventions
(candidates first view a four-minute film sequence)
Analyse the ways in the which the following are used in Blind Date to create an atmosphere for the programme:
Camera angle, shot, movement and position, editing, sound, special effects, mise-en-scène
Celebrity and the Tabloid Press
Compare the representation of celebrity in the two tabloid newspapers you have studied and discuss whether they serve the press and/or the celebrities themselves
Consumerism and Lifestyle magazines:
Compare the ways in which the two magazines you have studied reinforce or produce readers' aspirations in their representations of a lifestyle
Either a) Are there arguments in favour of stereotyping by the media? Give a range of examples in your answer. Or b) It is argued that dominant media representations serve the interests of the powerful. Discuss with reference to one or more social group or place
Either a) "Genre arouses the expectations of an audience." How and why does it do this? Or b) "Genres must adapt in order to survive." Discuss
Either a) Audience segmentation is essential to deliver audiences to advertisers. Discuss. Or b) Is it still relevant in the 21st century to think of audiences as passive?
The Production and Manufacture of News
Either a) Newspaper circulation figures are on a downward trend. To what extent are newspaper websites part of this decline?
Or b) "News is always unexpected." How far is this true?
Film and Broadcast Fiction
Show in detail how one film or one broadcast fiction text demonstrates originality of theme and/or innovation of technique
Advertising and Marketing
"A brand is an experience, the mere mention of which will immediately trigger images, thoughts and expectations in the consumer." Discuss.
Edited extracts from OCR and AQA examsReuse content