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The Curriculum Observatory Report No. 1

The Curriculum Observatory is a project started by the MEA to primarily examine two things; firstly, where is Media Studies and Media Education more broadly in the school curriculum in the UK, and secondly how is the planning, shaping and delivering of that curriculum (the bits with media in it, anyway) being influenced by examination specifications, school policies and the inspection regime. This first report synthesises contributions from 5 schools from different parts of England and looks to give a picture of what both the media curriculum in them looks like and then how that relates to the wider school curriculum. The report is organised into three themes which recurred in almost all the contributions submitted by the involved schools. These were 1) Examinations and Qualifications 2) Media in the curriculum 3) Media Studies teaching in lockdown and 4) Inspection.

The report is aimed at teachers of Media and Film, Curriculum Leads and interested Senior Leaders. While the sample size is small, the data is rich, and it is hoped that publishing this report will encourage more teachers to contribute to future editions. Contributions were received by the MEA across six months from May 2020 to November 2020

1) Examinations and Qualifications

All of the five respondents were honest and open about the fact that much of their teaching was focused on delivering exam and qualification content but there were some interesting variations to the way that this focus was manifested. One curriculum leader from a school in the East Midlands said that

(We are) mainly driven by qualification content however we have a big emphasis on career skillset, so we look to develop the soft skills required in a career within that subject area. We also use industry standard software in Media and Music tech. This holistic career focussed approach comes from the staff who are all subject specialists and have been, or are still industry practitioners.

This was also echoed by others who saw production work as key to the way that students would both be retained by and interact with the subject of Media. This response was from a HOD Media Studies in the North of England.

“For A-level I teach OCR's specification but still perhaps spend more curriculum time than necessary on the NEA as this has been part of the core appeal of the course to students and an area in which many of our students have gone onto higher education and employment. In terms of core principles, mine are about widening experiences, knowledge and understanding but trying to engender a love for making meaning and appreciating the impact of technology on media and our lives “

Interestingly, the school from the East Midlands had also moved away completely from doing GCSE and A-Level on the grounds that it was easier to manage the relationship between Media and other creative subjects and the core subjects, as the Curriculum Leader identified;

“Staff were on board (with the change to BTEC) straight away because we were fed up of having our lessons trumped by ‘core intervention’ towards exam time. We would lose a lot of lesson time this way, and then students were not doing well in the exams for our subjects. Changing to BTEC meant we had more control over outcomes as coursework would all be done before core exam season.”

The MEA is particularly interested to see what will happen to departments who have made this decision in the light of some of the changes around the way that BTEC courses will be funded and recognised in performance tables post-2020.

2) Media in the Curriculum

Three of the responding schools went into some detail about where Media sits in their wider curriculum. For one school in London, which had incorporated Media at KS3, went into great detail about their rationale for their year 9 teaching

We have taught media studies to year 9 as one of their options of the creative subjects for the past 3 years.

  • We focus on the key concepts of media language, representation and audience.

  • Topics covered are film marketing (posters), fake news, newspapers and ideologies, news broadcast and music videos.

  • The course design provides plenty of opportunities to apply key concepts to practical productions and group work. We felt this was important as this is limited at KS4 and KS5.

  • We were very mindful to introduce media concepts but not to start the GCSE in year 9.

  • The course provides so many opportunities for engaging discussions. Students have commented that they don't usually get to talk so openly about such topics and felt more informed about biases in media products and how this affects representations and in turn impacts society. The 2019 election and initial Covid-19 coverage provided plenty of debate.

  • Unfortunately, the school is reducing the creative option choice for year 9 from September to appease the needs of Ofsted. This is a great shame as the option process for year 9 was beneficial to all creative departments and all teachers felt we were able to provide students with a more solid foundation if they chose to continue the subject at KS4. Instead, we will be teaching more graphics with elements of media. Due to the limited contact hours we will have with students, much of the media concepts will be sadly stripped back.

Other schools are also trying to do good work in KS3, though again, this is under threat. The school from the North of England mentioned earlier had set out some interesting media education options in English, but was worried about the influence of MAT-wide policies

  • With the removal of media elements in the English curriculum we decided to embed Media units in Years 8 and 9 focusing on Media Language, forms and representation in Y8 and News Media in the Online Age in Year 9. It has had a really positive impact and reception from students and driven attendance and involvement in my Media Production and Film Club after school club which resulted in a lovely collaborative project between Year 8 and Y13 students called Status Clone where they wrote, planned, acted and directed a short film. In terms of Media within English I am mapping Media literacy and critical thinking and analysis skills to the key KS3 English outcomes but also using the Year 8 unit in particular as an introduction to Media Studies. The Y9 SOW included everything from source analysis to clickbait and covid-19 conspiracy theories. Whether it survives a MAT inspection which seems determined to just add more Victorian literature and Shakespeare is another question.

This testimony, while anecdotal, shows that there are definite concerns about the way that OFSTED’s conception of curriculum is impacting school’s willingness to build media into the curriculum. While there have been no statements about media within the curriculum from the inspectorate, there is a sense that it needs to be taken out of the curriculum and replaced with something more “worthy”. For more on this, see section 4.

The contributing school from the East Midlands had also thought long and hard about curriculum design – again, this is something that is seen as a current focus of inspections – and saw Media across both Key Stages, as part of a wider arts curriculum. #

“(I was asked) How well is your curriculum communicated to your students? Not very well was my answer. We had this very detailed curriculum plan, but by no means was that in a format that was accessible to students. So, because I want to be able to grade my department ‘Exceptional’ in all areas I made it my task to develop this area. I wanted to translate the curriculum plan into something that would inform and inspire students to take our subjects at KS4/5. I had heard the words ‘ learning journey’ banded about during the process of creating the curriculum plan. “Ask yourself, what is the learning Journey for your students”, “What does the learning journey look like in your subject”.

It is worth media teachers thinking about curriculum design (not because OFSTED want them to, though this will obviously drive certain types of SLT behaviour) but because there is an opportunity to, as the above teacher suggests, think about a coherent path for students from KS3 to KS4 to KS5. While this seems like stating the obvious, it is often the case that because schools choose different qualification paths, at different Key Stages, the extent to which the media curriculum is “joined up” may well have an impact on whether or not students choose media as an option.

3) Media Teaching in Lockdown

Significant concerns were raised about the impact of lockdown on the teaching that students received in Media and Film during the period March to September. Some of this ranged from pressing matters of national importance, like the effect on exam performance and Non-Examined, to much seemingly smaller but no less important points about pedagogy. As one contributor noted, it takes much longer to address misconceptions in an online environment, and when a subject like Media, which relies a good deal on discussion, moves online, some of this spirit of inquiry is hard to capture. For other contributors, there were both pluses and minuses:

“ it's been fine in the sense that we obviously have a lot of materials, videos and other sources to draw upon and there have been some particularly useful TV shows such as Age of the Image etc. However, for the practical film making skills and production work my fear is that this particular year group have missed out on crucial development time and that the current OFQUAL proposals will further disadvantage their skills development in this part of the course”

The situation with examinations is an ongoing one. At the time of writing, the Summer 2021 exams have effectively been cancelled, and Ofqual are consulting (again) about how Teacher Assessed grades should be gathered and used.

4) Inspection

While two contributors had been told by SLT not to expect the so-called “deep dives” in Media, both had prepared for the eventuality. One other contributor, in a post-16 environment, had experienced the OFSTED deep dive approach, and it is worth while looking at some of this experience, particularly for colleagues who work in post-16 settings or 11-18 settings where there is a substantial Media and Film offer.

The first thing that this contributor notes in their account is that there was no observation of her teaching. As many MEA members will know, this has not been the case in the past, and while it is difficult to establish at the moment, whether or not this will be the pattern for inspections involving Media and Film, it is notable as a change of approach. Instead of observation, the teacher was asked a number of “deep-dive” questions which were as follows:

· Could I explain the sequencing of my lessons and how I structure the year plan( I was also asked follow-up questions about how and why I approach this ‘holistically’)

· What kinds of tasks and activities do I get students to do to ensure that I am ‘interleaving’ their knowledge and helping them remember?

· How do I differentiate between students in these tasks and activities?

· How do I teach students to ‘research’ (which was a follow up question to the above question)?

· What CPD do I do that is subject specific and how does that impact my teaching. She asked me several questions about what I did with this CPD, where I went for the CPD etc etc. I explained my role at OCR which she seemed surprised by for some reason.

Some teachers will not be surprised to see the pervading influence of cognitive science in these questions (about “interleaving” and memory retention) , but the first question about sequencing of lessons, speaks to the point made in section 3 about curriculum design. It is also interesting to note, that in lieu of observation, students were also asked questions about their experience in Media classes, which included:

Why do Media? What are your reasons for choosing Media?

· Do you get advice and guidance about what you can do after this course? (follow-up: Where do you get this information from?)

· What part of the teaching do you enjoy? (follow-up: What does your teacher do to keep you engaged?)

· What does your teacher do to help you to improve?

· What could be done better? What else could be done?

· When are your exams? How are you preparing for your exams?

Some of these questions are to be anticipated, but what is surprising here is that there is very little on the content of the lessons that the students are experiencing. One might expect an inspector who was interested in curriculum design to ask questions about the content of that curriculum, but this does not appear to be the case. These are much more like the kind of “Student Experience” questions that students are asked in HE, which suggests that OFSTED may not be as interested in teaching and learning from the student’s perspective, as people might think.

Concluding Remarks It is hoped that this report provides some insight into issues of curriculum, curriculum design and inspection for MEA members. The MEA Executive Committee hopes to produce two such observatory reports a year in order to keep members informed of the kind of developments occurring in these areas. However, they will only be as useful as the contributions submitted for them, so we would encourage teachers to think about sharing their experiences of these matters with us, no matter how brief.

Steve Connolly

Chair, MEA Executive Committee

Spring 2021

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