What should we all make of the draft specs of the ‘new’ A Levels? The new specs presumably have to be similar enough to what went before to give teachers and students confidence that they will still have currency. On this basis, it's about fitting six existing units into four, the main reason for the re-write being a concern about the amount of testing.
I’m going to assume that A Levels still have a purpose, despite the fact that they were originally devised to be taken by a small percentage of school leavers attempting university entrance. Now they are taken by a large percentage of school leavers in a rather different university recruitment context. Here are some possible objectives for an A Level spec:
1. to provide a test of the specific skills, knowledge and understanding acquired by a potential candidate for a specific university degree, i.e. in this case media, film or cultural studies (or possibly a more vocationally orientated production degree);
2. to provide a more general test of candidate abilities in relation to further study or employment, i.e. intellectual skills, transferable skills, study skills etc.;
3. to contribute to a young persons general educational development and social understanding, i.e. the concept of a ‘well-rounded’ liberal education.
I’m going to look at each spec in broad terms evaluating it in relation to these objectives. I don’t teach any of the existing specs, but I do produce teaching and learning materials and work with teachers and students on specific topics.
WJEC A Level Film
This spec seems to me to be well thought out, clearly structured and overall a coherent curriculum offer. It can claim to cover each of the three objectives. Impressively, it includes a wide range of syllabus material that would prepare students for a film studies degree. It offers a range of assessment activities that allow practical work, independent study, coursework and exams with enough time to develop arguments in essays. Overall the A Level looks as though it will stretch able students whilst providing a fair challenge for all students appropriately recruited.
It includes a range of options to select from and compulsory sections at A2 which will introduce students to a broader perspective on cultural life and contribute to general educational and cultural objectives.
The approach adopted makes use of set topics from which centres and students must choose. Such topic lists are always contentious, especially when they include lists of focus films. I will avoid the temptation to argue against specific inclusions of films or film movements etc. Instead, I simply argue that there is one problem I have with the intellectual basis of the spec. and one with its structure.
I’m not happy with the overall approach to what the spec calls ‘national cinema’. To discuss American and British Cinema in terms of ‘national cinemas’ risks confusion for students. There is something called ‘British Cinema’ and that can be related to ideas about ‘National Cinema’ often discussed previously in terms of different European cinema movements. However, the British film industry is inextricably linked to Hollywood, which is not a ‘national cinema’ as such (in the same way that ‘Bollywood’ is not the national cinema of India as the spec. suggests in the A2 unit, FM4). The spec. does offer students the chance to explore British Cinema as well as American independent cinema, but I think the placing of these studies in the overall structure is problematic. The questions about British and American film are mostly located in AS. I think their complexity suggests that they should be in A2.
The other side of the coin to the British/American debate is the location of ‘other film cultures’ (I want to avoid the term ‘World Cinema’ as used in the spec.) only in A2. In this sense, the spec. fails to take the opportunities to introduce AS students to a more diverse range of films. I think it would be possible to study films from other cultures alongside British/American films at AS. One of my main objectives in cinema-based education each year is to screen non-American films to AS students and engage in work on narrative and genre. Because of the structure of the Film Studies AS/A2, these events are generally restricted to AS Media students, who don’t appear to have major problems dealing with subtitled films. Events using Lola rennt, Tsotsi, Ringu and À la folie pas du tout have been amongst the most successful I have delivered. At the same time, I am faced with audiences of A2 Media students tackling ‘Contemporary British Cinema’ alongside AS Film students grappling with the same concepts. I suggest that, although Film Studies is a well structured spec. overall, the emphasis on British Cinema and ‘other cinemas’ could be looked at again.
I can see there is an argument to focus on British Cinema in AS because of the wish to study representation issues at AS and using a British film might make this more accessible. However, I think it could be argued that representation issues covering, for example, youth, cultural diversity, urban living, crime and punishment, war etc. could be studied using a range of films from Europe, East Asia, Africa etc. as well as a British film. I also note that the Film Studies spec. attempts to engage students in study at AS of historical periods of film production in Britain and North America. Is this actually more accessible than cross-cultural study? I’m certainly not arguing against historical study, but it could be more focused on A2.
AS Film is taken by a larger number of students than A2 Film. I think it is more important to introduce the AS cohort to a more diverse range of films than it is to explore the complexities of the British film industry and its relationship with Hollywood. I think this may point to the need for more consideration about the relationship between A Level Film and A Level Media Studies. I’m impressed by the way that Film Studies, as an A Level, attempts to keep a breadth of approach which matches the best of Film Studies at HE. However, at AS, I’m less sure what the spec. offers to a student who does not intend to take Film at A2. I have some similar doubts about AS Media, but I recognise that this might be for different reasons. As far as film is concerned, I think AS as an introduction to studying ‘film as film’ (i.e. as distinct from the way films might have been present in earlier school work) should include an emphasis on the diversity of approaches different filmmakers in different cultures take towards telling stories and representing ideas, emotions and cultural experiences.
AQA Media Studies
The requirement to move to four units has had a noticeable effect on the AQA spec. It has lost some of the feel of a ‘text-centred’ spec., which downplayed industry/institution, audience and production work. This is, I think, for the good and it feels like a more modern spec. and one which bears a little more relationship to media studies in HE.
The ‘organising principle’ in the spec. has now been redefined in terms of ‘technologies’ or ‘platforms’. Students are required to study and to produce texts associated with ‘broadcast’ ‘e-media’ or ‘print’. This enables the spec. to focus more attention on what is happening in terms of changes in both production practice and audience use of the media. However, the actual definition is rather confused. A better definition might be based on institutional differences, such as films, TV series on DVD, games etc. sold for long-term use vs interactive, ‘live’, frequently broadcast and updated programming etc. (in simple language, ‘long-term’ and ‘short-term’ use). The spec does require ‘cross-media’ work which might allow the useful study of something like the music magazine Kerrang!, which exists as a print, web and broadcast (radio and TV) brand.
The spec. now requires production work at both AS and A2. Again, improvement, but I think there is quite a bit to do to consider what this means alongside the Applied A Level. Many students who might look at this A Level, should probably be advised to look at the Applied instead. The production briefs outlined in the spec. look rather confusing and for me display all the worst aspects of A Level assessment. The concept of a £30 million ‘hybrid genre’ movie part-funded by lottery movie is frankly ludicrous and its sad to see the ‘trailer’ brief included again. There doesn’t seem to be any balance between this and the web design and print briefs (more like journalism brief). This needs much more work to be viable.
Overall. I think the spec offers a possible introduction to media studies at HE and a range of student activities which might contribute to general education as well as being attractive to students. The assessment framework is rather weak, I think. Exams are very short. 90 mins was barely long enough for one of three units at AS. But for an A2 exam? OK, students will have 45 mins for one question, but 15 mins for each of three questions relating to an unseen stimulus (this is the MEST3 paper)? Compared to WJEC Film Studies this does not seem to offer the same kind of examination of essay writing skills. It may well be that MEST4 with its Critical Research Paper demanding a 2000 word essay is designed to counter this argument. Perhaps it will, but I wonder about HE recruiters, who are already worried about what students have actually learned in a Media Studies A Level and might want more evidence.
This spec also falls down in comparison with Film Studies in terms of the ‘broader perspective’. There is no listing of preferred study texts in the media studies spec., but also no encouragement to go beyond the ‘mainstream’ media that are easily accessible in the UK. The word ‘global’ or ‘international’ does not figure anywhere in the spec. Len Masterman once mocked me for my habit of searching specs via pdf files for certain words, but this strikes me as important. The Audio-Visual industry is one of the most important generators of wealth and cultural values in all developed economies and especially in Europe. This spec is failing to take the opportunity to introduce students to globalisation debates and cultural diversity. It also misses out on the possibilities of linking to new language teaching initiatives (Indian, Chinese, Spanish media perhaps?) If I were selecting between specs., this would be my main reason for not choosing this one.
OCR Media Studies
Since OCR already had two production units and had already made a move towards ‘new media’ and towards a higher profile for audience and institution work, the changes from six to four units do not look so dramatic. In general terms, although the question of similarity to and relationship with the Applied A Level are much the same as with AQA, the OCR spec seems to me more coherent and more confident in how it handles both the set production briefs and the overall approach to production work.
The assessment schedule with its 2 hour exam for two questions at AS (with 30 minutes viewing/note-taking time) and a similar 2 hour exam for what is effectively two questions (i.e. two linked questions about production work and one about a media debate) at A2 looks much better balanced than AQA’s. The decision to organise options by ‘media industry’ (i.e. film. newspapers, gaming etc.) means that there is a risk that issues of convergence etc. might be missed, but I’m reasonably confident that the detail in the specification, the guidance offered and the way in which different media forms are linked through production tasks will mean this doesn’t happen.
The synoptic unit 4 (G324) in A2 has been described to me as ‘challenging’ and I think it may well prove to be so, but it seems to me to have been well written in terms of topics from which candidates will chose specific media debates. This spec. does offer the opportunity to study ‘Global Media’ or ‘Media and Collective Identity’ as well as other topics, all of which should broaden student experience of media activity.
In summary, I think that this spec. offers the potential for both a good general and subject specific preparation for further study and, with appropriate selections of topics/briefs, a broadening experience. But that selection is important. My concerns about the existing OCR spec has always been that it is possible to make very ‘conservative’ choices of topics in AS and A2 which could lead to a narrow view of the media. Oddly, I think the restriction to four units in the new spec may actually mean that the narrow view is less possible. However, much will depend on the inservice training that teachers receive. I can’t help feeling that the OCR spec looks like being for the more adventurous teacher.
WJEC Media Studies
I’m much less familiar with the existing WJEC spec., so perhaps my comments on the new spec are more objective. I am aware of the reputation of this spec. in its earlier forms and therefore I’m not surprised by how it has turned out. At first glance, it is much simpler in presentation with far less detail in the spec. and less prescribed choice of topics. This does mean that sometimes it feels like a more old-fashioned approach. Again the organising principle is ‘media industries and there is a requirement in the synoptic unit to work on the products of three different industries.
I’m not very impressed with the two units which focus on production. They are quite basic in terms of setting out briefs and seem to focus on quite long/substantial evaluations. They don’t suggest anything silly, but also don’t encourage much adventure.
I do worry that ‘institution’ as a concept seems less clearly present in the AS spec than in the other two, but encouragingly ‘global’ issues do get a mention in A2. Overall, the lack of detailed prescription puts more onus on the teacher. Good teachers should have no problem constructing quality courses. On the other hand, this isn’t a very exciting or challenging spec. It looks a ‘safer’ bet than the AQA but not as challenging as the OCR spec. This is surprising when considered alongside WJEC’s Film Studies, which as indicated above, I think is carefully constructed to introduce (at least potentially) all the main elements of a degree course.
Assessment for this spec. is much more ‘rigorous’ with two 2 and a half hour exams. With three questions per paper, this gives more than 45 mins per question at A2 (AS has an unseen stimulus, but only as a print extract). I did note however, that there seems to be some flexibility in writing evaluations for production work with discursive essays, illustrated reports, PowerPoints and blogs allowed.
Overview summary of all four specs
The specs have very similar structures and similar assessment instruments, but the presentation of specification content, the amount of prescription and the emphasis on certain areas of subject content varies quite considerably. I suspect that the specs will have different appeals for both students and teachers. If I were recruiting students for HE, I would be happiest to take successful students from either WJEC Film or OCR Media, but I would be concerned about students who just scraped though these qualifications as I would wonder what they had really learned. I’ve suggested that WJEC Media looks a safe bet for the average student, but I’m worried about the AQA spec. Will it actually work and from the viewpoint of wanting students to be introduced to a diversity of media texts and practices will it deliver.
Finally, all three of the Media Studies specs have moved closer to the Applied A Level (when will that move from three to two?). I think it’s time the four media specs were looked at together (what is QCA actually doing about this?). There is also the ‘Moving Image Arts’ A Level spec from CCEA in Northern Ireland? So far this has only been piloted in England in three centres, but according to the microsite for the qualification, the draft spec. for the pilot (which is a 4 unit spec) will be modified to allow a wider offer through centres from 2008. So, there will be five specs to consider plus the Creative and Media Specialised Diploma in 2008. (Of course, you could decide to do the BTEC National Diploma -- tried and trusted and no doubt still around if enough people want it!)