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GCSE, AS & A LEVEL FILM STUDIES & MEDIA STUDIES REFORMS

The consultations on the subject content & assessment methods for future GCSE, AS & A Level Film Studies & Media Studies have just ended.
There were 4 separate DfE proposals on subject content & an Ofqual one on assessment methods for all four:
DfE Introduction
DfE GCSE Film Studies Content
DfE GCSE Media Studies Content
DfE AS/AL Film Studies Content & my summary
DfE AS/AL Media Studies Content & my summary
Ofqual Assessment Methods for all 4

This is a (small) part of the plan initiated by Michael Gove to return the English education system to the pre-comprehensive 1950s. For GCSE & AL, this has involved two elements. Firstly, a heavy emphasis on traditional 1950s grammar school type subjects, & streamlining the remainder by removing overlapping or problematic subjects & encouraging exam boards to axe those with only a small uptake. Secondly, an attempt to make all subjects more & more equally “demanding” by stipulating in precise detail an increased amount of subject content & replacing coursework assessment with final exams. AS is being “decoupled” from AL -students can take either or both but AS marks will no longer count towards AL grades. Once the new subject content & assessment methods for each subject are agreed, exam boards (“awarding organisations”) then have to devise syllabuses (“specifications”) within these new constraints. These in turn have to be approved, before finally being offered to schools & colleges. New Film Studies & Media Studies syllabuses are due to begin in Sept 2017.

These are all bad moves, driven by ignorant reactionary prejudice more than any real understanding of education. The insistence on discreet traditional subjects contradicts many of the most important & interesting developments in academia & industry, & in society, & culture generally. The insistence on subjects being equally “demanding” is mostly nonsense -the demands of, say, AL Dance can’t be compared with those of AL History in any meaningful way (though I know which I’d find easier). Narrowly prescribed content constrains adaptation & progress. Assessment largely or entirely by final exam is unreliable & unfair, useless preparation for university or anything else, & will encourage miserably narrow kinds of teaching & learning. Finally, the separation of AS & AL, condemned by almost everybody, will lead to further narrowness, create practical problems for timetabling & teaching, university applications etc & achieve nothing positive. Although exam boards & individual teachers will no doubt try hard to mitigate some of the worst effects of all this & make the best of a bad job, how stupid is it to waste everyone’s time, energy & enthusiasm on dispiriting damage limitation?

The Death of AL Communication & Culture

One of the first casualties was AL Communication & Culture, which AQA have decided to stop running. The original AL Communication Studies started in 1978. Even then it was a bit old-fashioned, a hotchpotch of US sociology, pop psychology, body language, & theoretical ‘models’ etc, but for over ten years it was the only AL where you could study media & do some (pre-digital) media production. In 2008 AQA revamped it as Communication & Culture, keeping some of the original content but adding some basic Cultural-Studies-style analysis of popular culture. Again, despite the muddled & outdated syllabus, this was the only AL where you could study popular culture anywhere near properly. Communication is a problematic concept on which to base a syllabus -it covers too many things, most of which involve a lot more than just communication- but the AL’s main problem was probably just that many people didn’t understand it. In particular, it sounded like a contentless skills course like the Communications element in many vocational courses -or like AL General Studies & Critical Thinking, which have both also been axed. After an initial boom, entry numbers steadily declined over the years, especially once AL Media Studies was available as an alternative. Despite some desperate last-ditch
protest, AQA presumably decided that it was not commercially viable & not worth the (probably huge) hassle of trying to get a reformed version approved.

Another casualty was the
AL Media Communication & Production run by Edexcel-Pearson. This was a relic from the days of GNVQ & “Applied A Levels” & looked exactly like a Level 3 BTEC & similar vocational qualifications, with lots of practical production & some uncritical study of media industries. Like most Applied A Levels, I don’t think it ever really took off, though it did apparently still have 400 entrants this year. Edexcel have decided not to continue with it, presumably realising that it would have no chance of being accepted as a new-style AL.

The Battle to Save AL Film Studies & Media Studies

Film Studies & Media Studies have survived this weeding-out stage -though there was a brief early
panic when Film Studies was ‘accidentally’ listed by Ofqual among the subjects to be axed, only to be reinstated a few hours later. The new subject content proposals were then drawn up by Ofqual & the DFE, exam boards, HE representatives & ‘subject experts’. For Film Studies the ‘subject experts’ are listed as including representatives from the BFI, Into Film, MEA, BAFTSS, NAHEMI, Creative Skillset, NFTS, four colleges & one school, & for Media Studies representatives from BFI, Skillset, MeCCSA, four colleges & three schools. The only names we know are David Buckingham & Natalie Fenton, representing the MEA & MeCCSA, & Phil Powrie representing BFTSS (& thanked by the WJEC exam board for being “very supportive”), & we know nothing about what went on except from a series of progress reports on the MEA website. In July, the MEA reported that the Schools Minister Nick Gibb was taking a ‘highly critical’ interest & that the proposals, especially for Media Studies, were looking awful. This led to a second panic, but David & Natalie led an urgent rearguard battle & were able to win some concessions, so the final versions of the “draft proposals” published in September are not quite so bad, though still very problematic. These are what are now up for consultation, with responses invited from anyone interested, but it’s unclear whether this is anything more than a token gesture &, apart from the MEA’s continuing efforts, there has been very little discussion, so probably very few people will actually respond & their responses probably won’t make much difference.

These “draft” proposals for Film Studies & Media Studies are both epic documents, 13 pages & 11 pages long, but the
finalised content documents for the subjects which have already been through the consultation process are much shorter, mostly around 3 pages each, so it seems likely much of the detail in these draft versions will eventually be summarised or omitted altogether, thank goodness. In their current form, both begin with a short, vague & incomplete list of aims & objectives, followed by a list of “content” which students must cover & “knowledge & understanding” & “skills” which students must demonstrate -though, needless to say, these sub-divisions overlap fairly randomly. They don’t deal with assessment (which is being dealt with separately Ofqual consultation) or with teaching & learning (in the way that a Scheme of Work might do) so reading them is a bit like flicking through the contents page or index of a textbook. Some points (especially in the Film Studies proposals) are spelt out repetitively & in fussy detail & some are just mentioned briefly. I suspect that this is maybe because they were compiled from several people’s suggestions, & not knocked into more concise, balanced & coherent shape by someone with editorial overview & control -maybe that will happen with the finalised post-consultation version. One of the things that struck me most strongly, though, was how difficult a task exam boards face in trying to convert all this stuff into a manageable syllabus, choosing set texts & an exam structure & questions etc that fit all the requirements.

The AL Film Studies Proposals

There are currently two AL Film Studies syllabuses, one recently launched by OCR with just a handful of entrants, & a very long-established, much-loved & respected WJEC syllabus used by everyone else. In its current form, the WJEC syllabus is assessed 50% on coursework -two bits of creative filmmaking, storyboarding or scriptwriting etc, a written detailed close-analysis, & individual independent research written-up as notes for a presentation. The other 50% goes on two exams, with questions on the US & British film industry, four thematic, historical or theoretical topics, & detailed study of a single film. Within broad historical & geographical parameters, the choice of films is left almost entirely open, with only the final exam question on a wide choice of set options -though teachers guides, examiners reports, CPD etc suggest a wide range of challenging & innovative possibilities. The most distinctive feature of the syllabus is the way that it starts from the new student’s existing knowledge & interest but gradually leads them beyond it, introducing current ideas drawn from advanced HE but pitched at an accessible level -for example in the way that transnational cinema &, um, post-Deleuzian affect theories are introduced as “borders & belonging” & “emotional response”. In principle,I think all exam board syllabuses should be devised by a workers cooperative of ordinary teachers, but in practice I must admit that all the best ones I’ve known have been written & run by one of two auteurs with a distinctive vision & missionary zeal. The very best ones then allowed us flexibility & choice while patiently coaxing us to move in the right direction.

Although I have complete faith that Patrick Phillips & co at WJEC will somehow convert the proposed new content into a worthwhile syllabus, it will be an uphill struggle. Coursework is now to be reduced to 30% & only involve practical filmmaking or scriptwriting. This will rule out proper textual analysis -impossible in an exam- & the individual independent research & extended writing which is often the best bit in the current syllabus & exactly the kind that HE wants to be included in ALs. The only writing that students will now do is frantically hurried exam essays: the final exam (probably two exams) covers 12 films; two historical movements; social, cultural, political, historical & production contexts; spectatorship; cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, sound, performance, aesthetics & narrative; critical approaches including poetics, narrative, auteurism, ideology, realism & digital; & two filmmakers theories. It’s hard to see how anyone could devise questions covering all this in the time available, & it will surely be impossible for students to properly demonstrate their knowledge & understanding. Despite this massive overloading, however, “institutions” & genre are almost entirely absent. Both have always been an important element in Film Studies at all levels, recognised as an important determining factor in all other elements, & a course which doesn’t include them would be very odd & incomplete. Missing out genre & such things as stardom & marketing etc also makes it difficult to build on the knowledge, interest & enthusiasm of new students in the way that current syllabuses do so well. Having all 12 films set by the exam board is also likely to discourage good teaching. Unless exam boards are defiantly inventive it could quickly lead to a pseudo-canon of “films that everyone always studies at school” -the film equivalent of To Kill a Mockingbird & Of Mice & Men- a massive step backwards from current best (though maybe not widespread) practice.

My preferred partial solution to all this would be to slim down the amount of material to be studied, allow teachers & students some free choice, & -drum roll- make the second coursework production a video-essay. Video-essay-making is the biggest & most interesting development in HE Film Studies in recent five years, & already widely recognised as a uniquely valuable form of study. If included in AL, it would help restore the three of the main things lost in the new proposals: recognition of students strengths & interests, independent research, & close attention to textual detail. It would make AL Film Studies distinctive, & challenging in a distinctive way.
So here’s what I wrote in my response to the Film Studies content consultation.

The AL Media Studies Proposals

The history of AL Media Studies is a bit shorter than that of Film Studies but much more complicated. There have been some fairly massive changes over the years -compare, for example, these OCR exam papers from
1991 & 2014, & there were equally different ones in between these two- & there have also always big differences between the OCR & the other, more cautious, exam boards. Currently, I reckon there are three main issues that arise. Firstly, practical production is now usually done to a very high standard & often by far the most important part of the course for both students & teachers. Secondly, this raises the question of how much other stuff to cover, & how to fit it into the exam & coursework limits. Thirdly, there’s the expansion of media theory into “new media” & cultural studies. This is often, I suspect, done very simplistically, but interesting & important -the way that “collective identity”, for example, has become part of teacherly discourse is another example of trailblazing syllabus-writers nudging things forward.

The new proposals have to had deal with all three issues, & have got all three badly wrong! Coursework productions have been reduced to just 30%, so students will probably be given less time & be less ambitious & engaged, & productions now have to be individual rather than group work, which will probably make video very difficult for schools with limited equipment. Despite a lip-service reference to “the fundamental relationship between theory & practice”, the proposals don’t really seem to be much interested in practice at all -productions only get 2 of the 32 paragraphs. Next, the ban on an overlap with Film Studies has meant that Media Studies no longer includes studying or making film. This is an indefensible case of sacrificing educational coherence & value in favour of a stubbornly blinkered assessment framework -like excluding Shakespeare from AL English Lit to avoid an overlap with AL Drama. It will leave Media Studies weirdly lopsided & incomplete, inhibit coherent understanding & rule out some of the most popular & productive bits of current courses.

So, no film -but radio, newspapers, magazines, advertising & marketing, online, social & participatory media, video games & music video, including at least one from before 1950, one for a non English-speaking audience, one non-mainstream & one targetting a minority group, all possessing cultural, social & historical significance, & between them covering different periods & global settings, illustrating a range of quality, form & structure, demonstrating future developments, reflecting & illuminating theoretical perspectives, providing rich opportunities for in-depth analysis ...&, the easy part, including examples that students would not normally engage with. Plus three of these, one AV, one print & one online, selected by the exam board for study in depth. All studied in terms of language, representation, institutions & audience of TV, in relation to social, cultural, political, historical & institutional contexts. That’s before we even get to the 20-odd assorted theoretical perspectives from which students will study all this stuff. In a
blog post discussing the Film Studies & Media Studies proposals, OCR subject officer Tony Fahy compares the situation with an episode of Masterchef: exam boards are given all these ingredients & have to somehow cook up a winning meal. There are enough ingredients here for a whole series of Masterchef.

One final thing: students’ use of the theoretical perspectives must in turn include knowledge & understanding of over twenty writers: Gramsci, Chomsky, Todorov, Levi-Strauss, Bandura, Gerbner, Edward Said, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, David Morley, Henry Jenkins, Steve Neale, Mark Poster, Norman Fairclough, Murdoch & Golding, Livingstone & Lunt, &, um, Gillian Doyle. This is an extraordinary list from any point of view. If it’s intended to indicate the contents of a well-read Media Studies academic’s bookshelf, then there are some notable omissions (eg Foucault, Adorno, James Curran) & several which seem quite arbitrary (eg why Angela McRobbie & Mark Poster rather than other writers on identity & new media? Why Levi-Strauss rather than Propp?) Some might arguably be better forgotten altogether (eg Bandura & his wretched Bobo dolls). More importantly, the names seem to have been chosen with little if any consideration of teaching & learning at this level. In some cases a name seems to have been used to represent a useful concept (eg “Gramsci” to mean “the concept of hegemony” & “Said” to mean “Orientalism & otherness”) but in most cases these are writers (eg Judith Butler) whose books require quite extensive knowledge of previous academic debate, quite often debate which barely mentions media at all Only one or two have written the kind of introductory book that most A Level teachers might realistically find useful in their teaching (eg possibly
Understanding Media Economics, £23.39 on Amazon, by Gillian Doyle, ironically the least known writer of the lot). Admittedly, the idea of thousands of teachers spending their 2016 summer holidays ploughing through the 2000 pages of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, ready to storm the classroom barricades in September, is quite attractive -but this raises the problem that half the list may be vetoed by Theresa May anyway -many of these writers are extremists of various kinds: self-confessed Marxists, radical & probably lesbian feminists, bolshy dissidents, rebels & academic entryists, openly un-patriotic supporters of Hugo Chavez & probably apologists for Hezbollah, Hamas & the IRA. This surely can’t be what Michael Gove had in mind? It would be safer if named writers were not included in the specified content at all, & this sort of thing left to textbooks & CPD. Here’s what I wrote in my response to the Media Studies content consultation.

AL VIDEO PRODUCTION

This doesn’t exist, but it would if I was in charge. I’d have a bit of filmmaking plus a video-essay for AL Film Studies coursework, & some analysis-production-reflection exercises in AL Media Studies similar to current syllabuses, but also have a separate AL devoted entirely to video production -though probably not called that. This would be like the great-looking
AL Moving Image Arts run by the Irish CCEA exam board, which was done very enthusiastically by a few English schools & colleges but annoyingly is no longer available here. AL Art includes named variants like AL Art-Textiles or AL Art-Graphics -& AL Art-Photography does actually include the option to do (artistic) video & film. This could be a great course, appropriately assessed mostly on coursework & all-day exams etc, but unfortunately students would still end up with a qualification called “Art-Photography”. AL Art has already been through the DfE consultation & reform process, so it’s too late to add an AL Art-Moving-Image this time -but in a few years time we’ll hopefully have a new government changing everything again...

Further Reading

Media Studies Development Latest News -WJEC Sept 2015
Film Studies Development Latest News -WJEC Sept 2015
Newsletters from WJEC explaining the consultation process etc

A New Media & Film Studies -Tony Fahy -OCR Blog Oct 2015
Blog post discussing the proposals etc by OCR subject officer

Review of GCE & GCSE Qualifications in Media Studies & Film Studies -David Buckingham for MEA June 2014
Before this whole business got under way, the MEA commissioned David Buckingham to write this review of existing syllabuses.
His analysis & recommendations are head & shoulders above anything in the current proposals.

Media Studies at A Level -BFI Initiatives 11 1989
Keen young London teachers describe how they handle 1980s-style Film Studies, Media Studies & Communication Studies

Method & Purpose -Patrick Phillips -English & Media Magazine 35 1996
Patrick Phillips explains the evolution of AL Film Studies from the 1970s to 1990s

Fifty Weeks to Learn Film -Mark Cousins -Sight & Sound Dec 2014
Joyous proposals for a Film School syllabus, an antidote to the joyless AL proposals