With only a couple of specifications awaiting final approval, the government’s reform of the examination system in England and Wales has now almost concluded. So where do the reforms leave Media Studies?
This time two years ago, it seemed possible that Media Studies would be deleted from the curriculum entirely. This is a fate that has befallen several other subjects – albeit those with much smaller cohorts of students. In other cases (such as ours) some concerted campaigning was required.
The good news is that Media Studies has been spared the axe. The bad news is that it has undergone some pretty fundamental changes, both in content and in modes of assessment. We may have won the war, but we have lost several key battles. Ultimately, the survival of Media Studies may prove to be something of a Pyrrhic victory.
I have blogged about this struggle at various points over the past couple of years. Back in Spring 2015, I was writing about the threat to practical coursework; and I went on to propose an alternative approach to evaluating media learning. Last March, I wrote about the misguided inclusion of a list of specified ‘theorists’ in the examinations, particularly at A-level; and again, I went on to propose a more productive approach to teaching media theory.
These criticisms still stand; and as the government’s overarching statement (the Subject Content document) has been developed into more detailed specifications by the examination boards, things have gone from bad to worse. Now that the process is more or less complete, Pete Fraser and I have written a lengthy analysis of what has taken place, which can be found elsewhere on this site.
To say the least, this has been a very frustrating business, which reveals a good deal about the making of education policy more broadly. Government officials have imposed a series of arbitrary and often contradictory requirements, in an apparent attempt to implement a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum. As the process went on, the goalposts repeatedly shifted, leaving examination boards ‘second guessing’ about the intentions of policy-makers.
The headlines are as follows. Practical media production coursework has been significantly reduced, from 50% (in most cases) to 30%. Students are no longer required to reflect critically on their coursework, depriving them of a significant opportunity to combine the theoretical and practical aspects of the subject. Opportunities for longer, research-based essay writing have completely disappeared.
The absurd list of ‘theorists’ is now compulsory, although some names have arbitrarily disappeared, and some more ludicrous ones have taken their place. As last year’s report by the Media Education Association suggested, it’s as though somebody has Googled ‘media theory’ and simply copied down the results. The published specifications are already including bullet-pointed lists of key ideas (three points for 16-year-olds on Judith Butler or Jean Baudrillard, anyone?). What we have here is theory as a set of instrumental ‘facts’, not as a body of ideas to be used and challenged.
In an attempt to reduce overlaps between subjects, film has been marginalized in Media Studies; while the study of the film industry and film audiences has all but disappeared from Film Studies. In these and other respects, Film Studies appears to have returned to a 1960s or 1970s conception of the subject, almost wholly preoccupied with textual analysis.
As the revised specifications have been drafted and redrafted, a whole range of other problems have arisen, largely as a result of the manic drive towards ever-greater prescription and compulsion.
Thus, the original definition of ‘media’ in the Subject Content document included an indicative list of nine different media that were likely to be covered in Media Studies. This list has now become compulsory, meaning that students must show evidence of having studied all nine media. Examination boards have been required to specify set texts, and to observe some quite bizarre stipulations in selecting them. There is little requirement or opportunity here to demonstrate knowledge of a wider range of media texts.
Reading the draft examination papers is quite dispiriting, to say the least. Concepts and ‘theorists’ are arbitrarily linked to specific media examples; complex intellectual debates are reduced to exercises in factual recall; and the selection of set media texts seems to lack any coherent rationale.
One of the professed aims of the government’s reforms was to increase the ‘demand’ (that is, the difficulty) of qualifications. Yet almost all of the changes would seem to point in the opposite direction. They make it easier for teachers to ‘teach to the test’, and for students to simply regurgitate content in the examination. The new specifications require a superficial grasp of a large quantity of material, and very little in-depth engagement. The marginalization of practical work undermines a key opportunity for creativity, and for exploring and generating new theoretical insights. None of this provides anything like effective preparation for university courses, which is one of the primary functions of A-levels.
Media Studies has been strangled, although it continues to draw breath. Committed, creative media teachers will still engage and challenge their students – although now they will be doing so despite the framework of assessment, rather than being enabled and supported by it.
You can read all the gory details here.