What’s happening with Media and Film Studies GCSE and GCE ‘A’ level?

By Pete Fraser (Chair, Media Education Association)

The changes to the curriculum at GCSE and A level have largely gone under the radar for teachers in higher education. Indeed teachers in schools and colleges are often surprised to discover what’s been happening! For all of us, the future of Media and Film Studies is potentially at stake, so it is important that everyone is made aware of both what is happening and what we might be able to do about it. In this article, I shall outline the context for these changes and describe the precarious position in which Film and Media Studies find themselves.

The new criteria for school league tables, which values some qualifications and some subjects more than others, has led to many schools marginalising their offer of arts subjects in general and a substantial drop (for the first time) in numbers taking Media at GCSE.

Scrapping the old GCSEs and A levels and replacing them with more ‘rigorous’ courses involves terminal exams replacing modular courses and the loss of assessed coursework in many cases. It is hard to be sure of the precise impact of this at the time of writing, as there are few details as yet of the specifications and structure for the new courses.

The huge emphasis placed upon the value of Russell Group university courses and the importance of STEM and ‘facilitating’ subjects has directly or indirectly led to significant drops in takeup for Film and Media ‘A’ levels, again for the first time in their history. It is common to hear stories of heads of sixth form warning prospective students about the danger of closing down their options by not taking a full set of ‘facilitating subjects’, and also of anxious parents dissuading their offspring from taking subjects which appear to fall outside Russell Group preferences.

All these features represent a narrowing of the curriculum, tailoring ‘A’ level to a certain type of higher education experience and reducing the range of subjects at GCSE.

In the new 16-19 curriculum, AS and A level are to be decoupled, which has a number of implications, not least shutting down options for students. Up to now, taking 4 AS levels in year 12 gave students some sense of achievement from the first year of their courses and often meant that they continued with something which they had previously thought they would not pursue beyond that year. In future, if they complete the assessment of an AS course and then decide they want to take it to a full A level, they will have to take the exams all over again at the end of the second year- their initial achievement will not be counted. This has implications not just for students, but also for schools and colleges in terms of their recruitment and the courses they decide to run. For courses which are often ‘new’ to students at 16+, like Film and Media, which they often take up as a ‘fourth option’ but in which they frequently discover ‘hidden talent’, this is likely to have a further impact upon numbers.

The decline in numbers can clearly be seen in this table:

Year GCSE AS A2
2010 68,456 47,241 33,375
2011 67,433 52,818 33,855
2012 61,680 45,375 32,111
2013 59,114 43,319 29,112

(Film and Media Studies combined entries, all awarding bodies; source: JCQ)

Indications for 2014 are that the decline continues, but is slowing. However, the absence of Media and Film from the lists of subjects to be revised for first teaching in 2015 and 2016 may lead to a further drop as schools push their students towards subjects to be graded under the new system at GCSE (grades 9 to 1 replacing A* to G) and to ‘new’ A level courses which have the government’s stamp of approval.

The first subjects approved for 2015 starts at GCSE are English Language, English Literature and Maths, whilst thirteen subjects have been approved for A level: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, English Language, English Literature, English Language and Literature, History, Art and Design, Business, Computer Science, Economics and Sociology. In April, the subjects approved for 2016 starts were announced; at GCSE these are: Combined Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Modern and Ancient Languages, History, Geography, Religious Studies; Design and Technology; Art and Design; Drama, Dance, Music, Physical Education, Computer Science and Citizenship Studies. At A level they are: Geography, Maths, Further Maths, Languages, Religious Studies; Design and Technology; Drama; Dance; Music and Physical Education. Many of the above subjects are much smaller than Media and Film Studies, which have both thus far been passed over.

There have been a number of consultations about the changes, mainly online, to which anyone can contribute. The most recent, on revised A level content for the first tranche of subjects, received 291 responses, which have been taken into account in final recommendations by the Smith committee. Often such consultations slip out very quietly and most ‘stakeholders’ are unaware of their existence or believe that they will have no effect. The next such consultation, likely to be launched very soon, will focus on what should constitute a GCSE  or an ‘A’ level. It will be very important to contribute.

The DFE/Ofqual principles for what makes a GCSE/GCE are that there should be a ‘reasonable’ number of candidates, that a subject should ‘not be too vocational’, that there be ‘clear progression routes to HE’, that it can be ‘assessed effectively’ (which usually means not too much coursework), that there be ‘stakeholder involvement’ and a ‘comparability of standard’ (to old specifications and to other subjects). When the consultation happens, the MEA will be asking as many people as possible to participate with the aim of ensuring that Film and Media Studies are accepted for development for 2017. It should be noted that Media Studies is the largest subject not to have been approved so far and that some subjects which have vocational options (Business, Art, PE) have already gone through. Likewise, some subjects (such as Art) have been approved with very high coursework components. There are obvious implications for colleagues in HE if our subjects were to disappear at ‘A’ level in particular, given that many schools and colleges send on as many as 30% of their Media/Film ‘A’ level candidates to related courses at university.

The MEA, as the subject association representing teachers in schools and colleges, is requesting a meeting with the Department for Education to lobby for the continuation of these subjects, where we hope to be accompanied by representatives from the Russell group (through MECCSA), the BFI, the NFTS (on behalf of the industry), the awarding bodies and headteachers. We will be keeping everyone informed about opportunities to participate in the consultation process and urge you to support the case for Film and Media to maintain their status as GCSEs and GCE A levels.

Posted by Einar Thorsen