Examining Media Studies

The government is apparently ‘rationalising’ qualifications in secondary schools. What are the dangers and opportunities here for media teachers?

Over the past few months, Media Studies in British schools has been struggling for survival. The government’s endless revisions to the curriculum currently involve a comprehensive ‘rationalisation’ of course provision at GCSE (taken by students aged 14-16) and A-level (16-18). Over the past twenty years, specialist Media Studies courses at this level have expanded significantly, although in recent years there has been a slight decline – not least because of the government’s increasing emphasis on a narrow range of traditional academic subjects.

Tory politicians’ hostility to Media Studies is well known, and has a long history. As I have argued, Media Studies seems to be caught between contradictory demands: it is accused of being insufficiently academic (a ‘Mickey Mouse subject’) and yet also of being insufficiently vocational (‘it’ll never get you a job in the media’). Over the past year, there have been increasing rumours that Media Studies was one of the subjects that would be rationalized out of existence. Study of the media has already been effectively removed from the subject of English, where it has long had an important place.

At the time of writing, Media Studies appears to have been saved from the axe. But in the process, changes and compromises are bound to be made; and there are questions about what kind of Media Studies is likely to remain. Last summer, I wrote a review of qualifications at this level for the Media Education Association (the media teachers’ subject association); and more recently I have been involved in a stakeholder consultation convened by the awarding bodies.


The most significant threat at the moment is to do with the survival of coursework – or what is now termed NEA (non-exam assessment). There seems to be an assumption that written timed tests are somehow automatically more rigorous, and that coursework (in this case, practical media productions and long research-based essays) somehow makes it harder for examiners to differentiate between stronger and weaker students. I have seen no evidence to support such claims.

The government (through its agency, Ofqual) wishes to increase what it calls ‘demand’ (or difficulty), but it has no way of identifying and comparing the demand of different subjects, or different modes of assessment. If students tend to do better in one subject than another, does this necessarily mean that it is easier? Clearly not: there are a great many other factors involved. Likewise, if students tend to get higher marks in coursework, does that necessarily imply that it is easier than timed tests? Again, it’s not hard to see what it wrong with such an argument. If there is a problem with differentiating between stronger and weaker students, that is not a problem with the mode of assessment, but with the actual practice of assessment.

In the consultations, there has been considerable agreement among those involved (representatives of HE and employers) that coursework is often more intellectually challenging than timed tests; that it allows us to assess skills and understandings that cannot be assessed through written examinations; and that it is more relevant to the needs both of employers and of higher education (where a great deal of assessment takes this form).

Media Studies without – or with very little – practical coursework would be like studying drama without doing any performance, or studying art without actually getting to make anything. Media Studies without the opportunity to do research and write longer essays would be poor preparation for further study. Reducing Media Studies to a set of facts that could more easily be assessed through timed tests would actually make it less demanding, rather than more.