Hey, Mickey: does Media Studies have a future at GCSE?

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Rumour has it that in the next round of the perpetual Maoist revolution of GCSEs that so-called soft subjects like Media and Law will be abolished altogether.

I have mixed feelings about this. Obviously, when the message is weighted with loaded adjectives like “soft”, one has to consider the source. In the goldfish bowl of politics and media, the media themselves don’t want any kind of scrutiny, at any level, and the academic discipline of Media Studies has always been their black beast. God forbid young people should be educated in media literacy. They might see through the veil.

I have never believed Media was a soft subject. It’s certainly an odd mixture of the academic and the creative, which makes it a very challenging subject on many levels. Students need to be both creative and analytical to do well in it, which is why it’s statistically harder to get an A in Media at A Level than it is many other subjects. Media has an image problem because it wasn’t available as a subject when our current crop of senior politicians and university dons were at school. Furthermore, it wasn’t taught at those fee-paying schools that so many politicians and BBC journalists attended. And of course it’s not taught at Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, where so many politicians and BBC journalists went to network and study Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

But I do have a problem with the GCSE. When I started teaching, the school that recruited me (out of my previous career in sales and marketing) had already decided to use the AQA specification. I taught this for three years, until the specification was reformed, at which point (since I was going to have to adopt a new spec anyway), I took the opportunity to switch boards. Having taught three cohorts of very mixed ability students, I’d identified a couple of things. First of all, that the analytical and creative students were often held back by the disruptive behaviour of the non-creative and less academic students. As a trainee teacher and then an NQT, I had a torrid couple of years. This gave me a jaundiced view of the GCSE. I felt that it attracted a disproportionate number of students who were not interested in anything, and had selected Media as a least-worst option from a clutch of GCSEs in their option blocks.

This is a real problem. The school (and many other, similar schools, I’m sure) simply doesn’t have the staffing budget, the facilities, or the physical space required to offer a broader range of options. God knows, we’ve tried. Media ends up being a third choice for students who have tried to avoid, at all costs, the academic route (now known as the ebacc route). Well, as a teacher, “least worst” doesn’t cut it for me, and I found myself endlessly frustrated at having to deal with 9-10 students in a class who didn’t want to be there, didn’t get it, weren’t interested, and had had all the creativity knocked out of them at an early age. I certainly sympathised with them, but felt I was essentially babysitting them for two years so they weren’t disrupting Geography, History, or indeed Law lessons.

Every now and then, I’d have 5-6 really switched-on students who were both academically able and creatively gifted, and we would have some fun. If I was lucky enough to take those students through to A Level, we would have two more years of fun and success. Still, I switched away from AQA Media to Journalism and Moving Image Arts, two different options. This offered two distinct routes: one very much based around factual media and writing and one based around visual storytelling and practical skills. I still had the same problem, though, of babysitting 6-10 students who would have been better off doing a vocational college course.

Then the CCEA Board announced that, because of the growing differences between Gove’s English GCSEs and their Northern Ireland GCSEs, they would no longer support English centres. And I was thrown back into the arms of AQA. Bugger.

One of the reasons I abandoned AQA in 2009 was that I didn’t like the smell of their double award. I’m suspicious of double GCSEs. I’m no Tory, and I hate the Daily Mail, but double GCSEs stink of gaming the system. The problem with the GCSE double award is that the single award is just coursework, more coursework, some coursework, and then some more coursework under exam conditions. (I know it’s not called coursework, but that’s a game, too.) Now, I like the third paper of the double award, but I don’t want to teach a double award. Either that would mean squeezing extra work out of students in the standard 3 contact hours per week, which would feel like endlessly stamping on the toothpaste tube and not having space to think and, you know, teach and enthuse and engage. Or it would mean more contact hours, which I can’t manage, because I teach so many A Level subjects (three, since you ask). I think I could do the double award with 4 hours per week, but I already teach five subjects across three GCSE and four A Level option blocks and there isn’t enough of me to go around.

So I am frustrated at single award GCSE Media. There just isn’t enough of a focus on the industry, its ownership, the way its regulated, and the influence it has on society. All of this stuff can be implicit in a really excellent piece of coursework, especially in the research and planning, but I would much rather have this kind of knowledge and understanding explicitly tested in a proper exam similar to the Unit 3 exam for the double award. And, anyway, there are still too many people who choose Media because they think they will be watching telly instead of working.

So, given that my timetable would remain quite full if I was just teaching A Level (and I love teaching A Level Media – it’s what gets me up in the morning), I wouldn’t be terribly sad if OFQAL abolished the GCSE.

What they should do is reform it so it ends up being something like a combination of Unit 2 and Unit 3 of the current AQA double award. Preferably, the Unit 3 exam would be reformed too, so it’s less repetitive and has a couple of longer answers in it – the current question 15 and one more.

But that won’t happen, so I’m left in the position of wondering if the GCSE will be abolished altogether and feeling slightly guilty that I won’t mind very much.

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