I have just had the privilege of working first-hand with some of the best (and many of the worst) film, television and media schools in the country. They have one common feature Ã¢Â€Â“ they are in it for the money. Nothing essentially wrong with that. It’s infinitely better than being a government department that carries more passengers than Metrorail. But schools must produce a quality product, and provide a valuable and needed service.
Even the universities regard their media and TV schools as cash cows. A film (radio, TV, design, web, media Ã¢Â€Â“ they’re all the same) school has all the makings of a great business plan. The demand always exceeds the supply. Given any list of education options, the rich, bored or idle will always select a career in show business. After all, it offers what no other profession can: fame and fortune.
The overheads are low. There is no shortage of hacks, has-beens and never-will-be’s to pose as staff. And if the kids don’t pass, it’s their fault Ã¢Â€Â“ “no talent, darling”. There are lots of glossy brochures on offer that don’t stop reminding you how easy it is to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar. You can read about the successes of past students. Rarely will you read about the past successes of the teachers. With subtle manoeuvring, you can even get away with a senior academic staff member with a matric, or less.
The authorities are cracking down. They’ve spotted the racket, and so the race is on to be “accredited” Ã¢Â€Â“ whatever that means. Something stinks in the state of Denmark. Something Ã¢Â€Â“ not everything. There is a handful of schools that get most things right, proving only that it can be done. But let’s get a whiff of the smellies…
A school should never aspire to be accredited. Accreditation is the minimum requirement. The tackiest schools should aspire to standards far higher than mere accreditation. They should sail through the process. Quality is the same as ethics. There are lots of words that make up “ethics” in education (consistency, fairness, cost effectiveness, validity, integration into work, and so forth) but they don’t help unless you take the basics required in accreditation and add a couple of kilos of sincerity and “in it for the long haul”.
A school’s reputation is only as good as the success of its past students. That does not mean that they all got jobs after they left. It means the answer to deeper questions: For how long did they keep their jobs? How did they advance? What did they achieve after one year, two years; ten? For that matter, if the courses were funded, how much income tax did these students pay over the following two years? We call that sort of thing “return on investment”.
Designing a curriculum is not writing a list on the back of a cigarette box in the Mug & Bean. Designing courses and assessments is a scientific (and almost mathematical) process. It’s a tedious job that can be verified by any educationalist. To run a school, you must be able to at least spell didactics and pedagogy.
The common thread here is that while many of these schools have good intentions and fine staff, almost all are seriously lacking in the basic knowledge and application of the science and discipline of education. Their teaching methods stink; they are poorly designed, badly taught and hardly ever evaluated.
Just because you’re an expert, it doesn’t make you a teacher. Sure, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware). But one bad school is enough to make business really bad for everyone else. This is where an Association of Media Schools would do some valuable self-policing. It won’t stop the rats and mice, but you’ll be able to spot a rat a lot quicker.
Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years. His experience with television dates back to the beginning in South Africa. Thomas is a media business consultant, trainer and specialist in audience psychology.
This column first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008).