In which I write a letter to OFQUAL

OFQUAL are currently consulting about the next wave of GCSE and A Level reforms. This politically-driven process worries me, and I’m especially irked by the kneejerk dismissal of all of the subjects I teach, which I see challenge, inspire, and stretch my students every day. Noticing that the on-line consultation offered little scope to defend particular subjects, I wrote this letter.

18 June 2014

Completing GCSE, AS and A level Reform Consultation,
ofqual, Spring Place,
Coventry Business Park, Herald Avenue,

To whom it may concern,
GCSE, AS and A Level Reform: Media Studies, Film Studies, and Creative Writing
I have recently completed your online consultation on the next wave of qualification reforms, and felt there was no real opportunity to defend certain subjects against the negative press they have been receiving from ambitious politicians and conservative media commentators.
I would like to take this opportunity to defend the relevance and rigour of the three subjects I currently teach at GCSE and A Level, while offering some criticisms of the current specifications.
Media Studies
I currently teach (AQA) A Level Media Studies, and think it an excellent specification, offering students an opportunity to express their creativity with professional discipline, and interrogate the world in which they live using theory, analysis, and independent research. In a world dominated by an ever-decreasing number of multi-national conglomerates, the task of Media Studies is to examine the ways in which social attitudes, political debates, and the national conversation is influenced by the powerful narratives provided by the Media. To argue that this subject lacks rigour – particularly from the comfortable perspective of someone who currently works in the media – is disingenuous to say the least.
I think that A Level Media has a good balance of academic content and practice, with the practice always informed by a professional brief and/or the need to undertake research. Students enjoy the subject, and often attest that they have had the “veil lifted from their eyes.” In a media-saturated society, I would argue that an informed skepticism towards media messages is an essential life-skill, no matter what career an individual pursues. But when it comes to preparation for work and careers in the creative industries, marketing, public relations, Media Studies is also an excellent fit. These industries are worth £billions to the UK economy, and are among our most successful exports.
At GCSE level, I think Media Studies needs some reform. The current specification is too heavily weighted towards controlled assessment (coursework) and even the exam for the current single award (AQA) is like an additional piece of coursework. I think students should only complete two practical projects, in different media, and should sit an examination focused on a critical approach to the media industry. My opinion is that Media should only be available as a single award, with the examination component to be based on the current Unit 3 (answering questions on the Media Industry and interpreting data) from the double award.
While there should still be a skills focus, I think the GCSE in particular needs to develop a more interrogative attitude to the media industry and its regulators.
Film Studies
Film Studies is a popular subject at both GCSE and A Level. Students enjoy it, however, not just because they enjoy films, but because of the ways in which the subject helps them to achieve, overcoming technical and creative obstacles and acquiring a vast range of skills in the process.
In terms of “just watching films”, students are soon disabused of the notion that the lessons will be a nice break from academic work. Films are constantly interrupted for questioning, replayed for analysis, and sometimes not even watched all the way through. Moreover, their knowledge and experience of film is extended from the multiplex fodder they typically consume to classic films of the past, and international, subtitled films from a broad range of cultures. Students taking the current WJEC GCSE, for example, have the opportunity to learn about the Spanish Civil War, and reflect upon the experience of young people in times of conflict.
The moving image was the pre-eminent art form of the 20th century, and in the 21st, continues to play a huge part in world culture whilst at the same time contributing vast amounts of money to the economy. British film technicians are world-renowned, and British actors are world famous (see the cast list of Game of Thrones, for example). I once compiled a list of all the skills necessary to make a short film, and it took up an entire page of A4. I won’t burden you with the full list, but suffice it to say that the range of knowledge and skills needed to plan, shoot, edit, and export a 2-minute film is enormous. From handling a camera, through scripting and storyboarding, composing shots, lighting scenes, managing actors and crew, uploading footage, building a narrative with editing, creating a soundscape, all the way to final output is an incredible journey. The impact on a student who completes this journey, overcoming all the challenges along the way, is enormous. For many students, making a short film is the hardest thing they will ever do, and I have seen this process become the making of many an individual.
If I have criticisms of the current Film Studies specifications, they are as follows.
There’s a tendency for the current trends at university-level Film Studies to filter down, to the detriment of the A Level. While the research and study at university is interesting and valid, I do believe that at school, as in English Literature, students should gain a knowledge of the classics. If we’re going to get prescriptive, students should (at the very least) learn about Expressionism, Film Noir, Westerns, Hitchcock, European New Waves, and Kurosawa. While teachers fresh out of University may find these topics “done to death”, from a student perspective, they are not. For many students, a Film Studies lesson is the only time they will see a subtitled film, a black and white film, or indeed a film made before they were born. They’re always wary, and they’re always enlightened. That’s what education is for.
Overlap with Media Studies. The subjects are very different, and should be, but the ability for teachers to use the same material for both should be constrained. My personal opinion is that there is too much focus on the film industry in the current Film Studies specification. I believe there is sufficient material and rigour available in the analysis of films and how they create meanings and manipulate emotions, and in producing films using a range of techniques and skills. I think Film Studies should be more like the CCEA Moving Image Arts specification, which English and Welsh schools are no longer able to offer.
Creative Writing
Finally, I would like to make some comments on the new (AQA) A Level of Creative Writing. It’s particularly galling that some professional writers have been taking the opportunity to criticise this subject in the pages of national newspapers, as if they themselves had no training, no mentors, and did not develop their skills over a long period of time. One hypocrite was even employed as a creative writing tutor, but seemed to find the actual teaching required to be too much of a burden.
First of all, the notion that the craft writing can’t be taught: of course it can. Indeed, every great writer learns to write, whether through constant repetition and practice, or through contact with professional editors and readers. For anybody to claim otherwise is disingenuous. That writing is already part of English is of course obvious – but for students who really love to write, English qualifications are too prescriptive and offer too few opportunities for self-expression.
Furthermore, while reading is of course an essential part of the English curriculum, reading for pleasure is far less prominent. While the study of classic literature and contemporary literary fiction is important, there is a place too for the study of popular and genre fiction, screenplays, magazine and newspaper journalism, and poetry. By encouraging students to focus on the craft and technique employed by writers they love, they gain a far greater understanding of writing techniques.
As to teaching creativity, just watch me. Students are riddled with fears and insecurities gained through years of subject and exam pressure. They come to doubt their own instincts and are often taught to suppress their creativity in service of conformity. They’re under pressure from their parents, their teachers, and their peers. Part of my job as a creative writing teacher is to give them a range of strategies and techniques that help them get in touch with their own creativity.
There are very few careers that do not demand some kind of writing, and all good writing is creative. Employers frequently complain that students lack these basic skills, in spite of the fact that they have passed English examinations. Creative Writing focuses not just on creative free expression, but on writing flexibly to a brief, to a deadline, and to length. These are valuable marketable skills in most workplaces, and can also help students in all of their other subjects: writing an effective lab report for a science subject; writing marketing communications in Business studies or ICT; writing essays in English and the humanities; writing scripts for creative subjects; writing effective short and long answers in examinations.
Finally, I would like to add that I feel that all the exam boards and ofqual should be more forthright in defending certain subjects against attacks in the media. None of us know what skills might be required of our students in the future. There are jobs available now that did not exist even five years ago, when the current A Level specifications were introduced. On average, all of our young people will have between 10 and 14 different jobs during their lifetimes. To be closing off qualifications and narrowing choice is shortsighted, and absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Yours faithfully,

One response to “In which I write a letter to OFQUAL”

  1. I nearly missed my stop on the tube earlier when I was reading your missive.

    Well put.

    Glenys.Stacey@ofqual is probably being forced by Gove on this agenda.

    Despite all Gove’s apparent U turns, it still comes across as part of his ‘one size fits all’ model about building qualification factories. Gove’s push for linearity and all of the assessments at the end of the course doesn’t fit will with some subjects and studies, nor is it particularly reflective of a modern world which is time-sliced and divided into many projects with competing priorities.

    It seems to all be part of the (ongoing) EBacc/IGCSE agenda, with a narrow domain of traditional mid 20th century subjects (Eng Lang, Eng Lit, Maths, a science, a humanity, a language) such that even computer science had to be argued in later by industry lobbies. It looks as if the creative subjects are being parked around the back of the building – or over in the pay schools.

    A pretty wide range of lobbyists have spoken out about this including Sir Jonny Ive and Vicky Featherstone from Royal Court (as examples – there’s many more). The challenge is that the 2015 agendas are already set, and everyone will want to hold steady in the run up to the electoral rumpus.


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