June 22, 2010

skills for life relevance

My research into the Skills for Life initiative has been a useful as it has made me question diagnostic assessments employed in the student selection procedure for the courses I teach.

In colleges and universities which don’t enjoy high placements in further education league tables, the focus seems to be on ensuring there are sufficient numbers of students to justify the courses being offered.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why graduation rates and grades might reflect the quantity rather than quality of the students who are being admitted onto the courses.

It’s a generalised observation but one that impacts on the standard of degree level work I see and mark at assignment level.

What makes my analysis more unusual is that because I teach students who are hoping to join the media industry, one would expect their literacy and numeracy skills to be of a reasonable standard.

The assumption that they would be capable of producing practical written work in response to unit briefs and to analyse and evaluate the structure and operation of local government should, and it’s a big should, be a foregone conclusion.

Basic writing styles, use of language, strategies for news and feature writing structure, including direct and reported quotes are all needed to produce industry-standard copy.

Local government in England and Wales is a complex area, particularly the electoral system, rights of the press and public to attend council meetings and major sources of local government revenue.

The need for numeracy skills is an essential part of being able to understand the decisions of finance committees, council tax calculations and allocated funding for local authority services.

Since I started teaching journalism three years ago, my assumptions of degree level students basic numeracy and literacy skills have been completely demolished.

The question for me is not whether the syllabus works and offers opportunities to develop subject knowledge skills but why some students applying for media-based degrees have not addressed basic literacy skills.

And why, with so many colleges and universities offering these types of courses, so many students are unaware of the requisite industry standards.

In my experience, many students, despite the fact that last year more than one million of the three million unemployed were 18-24-year-olds, assume that once they are armed with an average media degree they will walk into highly paid PR and presenting jobs.

Earlier this year, I saw an application for a full-time place on an accredited journalism course run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists which was littered with spelling mistakes and “text speak.”

The student had the requisite five GCSE (including maths and English) and two A level passes but the three-line email he sent confirming his induction appointment contained five spelling mistakes including Wednesday. Or, “Wensday,” as he wrote.

While emails are arguably deemed to be a more informal way of communicating, on this occasion, the student was in the process of applying to join a pre-dominantly post-graduate accredited journalism course and should have been aware that his literacy skills would be noted.

It gave the impression that instead of using the email as an opportunity to show-case his literary prowess, this student presented a lazy communication which did little to impress the head of the course.

The reality is that within an industry that over the last three years has laid off more experienced journalists than it has recruited, the chances of getting a media placement can only be higher if graduates show a real flair for delivering well-written, grammatically correct copy.

And, just as importantly, have a thorough understanding of all aspects of law, public administration and news gathering.

Set against this industry background, I believe the skills and subject knowledge that need to be developed in the course I am analysing need to cover a far more diverse range of writing skills than are currently being addressed.

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