© 2016 The Authors. iJADE © 2016 NSEAD/John Wiley & Sons Ltd Contextual studies (CS), ‘theory’, ‘visual culture’ or ‘art history’ (amongst other labels) refer to a regular and often compulsory feature in art and design education. However, this takes many forms and can sit in a variety of relationships with the practical elements of such courses. This article is based on mixed method research on CS in the BTEC Extended Diploma in Art and Design, a course that makes up a substantial proportion of pre-degree provision in the UK. We describe aspects of the wider study then draw on two cases to illustrate and discuss the implications of different approaches to the curriculum and its integration. Our analysis suggests that a seemingly progressive flight from a discrete CS towards a designed form of integration can have unintended negative consequences, and in the light of this we suggest some ways in which course teams might reflect on their practices.