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. This is compounded from September, by some new funding arrangements which are likely to see some colleges reducing their offer to just a three subject curriculum.
The decline in numbers can clearly be seen in this table:
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 consultation released on June 4th by Ofqual covers all the subjects which have not yet been agreed for redevelopment, including Media, Film and Communication and Culture (which has about 2000 entries at A level). Some subjects are to be discontinued, due to overlap with others, such as Human Biology (which overlaps with Biology). Contrary to press reports, Film Studies is not being merged with Theatre Studies; it appeared in the Ofqual document as a subject to be discontinued and was widely reported as such, but Ofqual quickly acknowledged that this was an error and replaced the document. Press coverage was not amended, however, leading to some alarm.
The Ofqual document makes clear the criteria for subjects to be redeveloped and the kind of case that will need to be made for non-exam assessment, which will obviously be significant in relation to practical work. It is very important that as many people in the field as possible download the document, read it and respond. You can get it here: https://ofqual.gov.uk/news/gcse-level-reformconsultation/
The MEA will put its response on the website at www.themea.org.uk
The nature of the questions in the survey is such that there is little room for qualitative responses, but organisations and individuals should feel free to send ofqual written responses to make the case.
The MEA, as the subject association representing teachers in schools and colleges, set up
a meeting with the Department for Education to lobby for the continuation of these subjects, where we took a delegation, including Kate Oakley of the ICS at Leeds and Natalie Fenton (Vice-chair of MECCSA), as well as headteachers, representatives of the awarding bodies, teachers, and senior figures from the BFI, the NFTS and Into Film. The meeting was very positive and a full account appears on the MEA website.