Creativity foreclosed

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The Department of Education for England has ruled that the A-level course (for senior secondary school students) in Creative Writing should not be available after 2017. This course has only recently been introduced after a long gestation period that involved a good deal of consultation between the profession, the examination board and Ofqual, the qualifications regulator. The statement from the DfE gives no detail as to the reasons for this decision, but it is understood that the course is thought to reward skills rather than knowledge and to overlap with other A-level English subjects.

The relationship between skill and knowledge is much contested philosophically, but in the case of writing it is evident that a high level of skill depends upon the ability to apply cultural knowledge. Shakespeare’s gift depended on his knowledge of the histories, chronicles and popular literature of his time. In the A-level Creative Writing course, students have to study non-literary (‘professional’) writing, prose fiction, prose non-fiction, poetry and play-script. In this way, they develop their grasp of generic conventions, style and voice, narrative and poetic techniques and other aspects of the writer’s craft. The extent and depth of their knowledge is assessed not only by the content of their writing but also by the reflective commentary that they supply as part of the assessment.

If the first of the DfE objections implies that candidates don’t gain sufficient knowledge, the second rather paradoxically suggests that the knowledge they gain overlaps with that offered by other English subjects. Some overlap between subject content is inevitable in many fields of study, but the crucial difference here is that creative writing is a different kind of knowledge from that assessed in a Literature course.

The most popular English A-level, English Literature, involves writing about literary texts. Novels, plays and poems are analysed by reference to genre, historical context and literary qualities. This analysis is then assessed largely by an end-of-course examination. This kind of writing, where the literary text is used as evidence in a formal argument, is very different from creative writing, where cultural knowledge is used in order to produce an original work. It is the same difference as the difference between writing about art or music and producing an artistic or musical work. Writing can be as much a creative activity as are art and music: an embodied form of knowledge that, in the words of the teacher quoted below, makes learning tangible.

This teacher’s college piloted the A-level in its first year and gained an immediate enthusiastic response from students. Some who weren’t even enrolled dropped in to take part. In its second year, the course enrolled 70 students. She gives a passionate account of their achievement:

In Creative Writing students learn, through writing practice and wide reading in contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and script, to use the English Language for creative purposes. Some have been published or won prizes through for their writing. That, however, is not the achievement of the course. What is, is the genuine spirit of collaborative exploration of ideas and ways to express them in words. An effective writing workshop makes learning tangible. Students offering advice, support and critical appreciation of each other’s work is at the heart of this subject. They are not passive vessels soaking up content but are active creators of new literature. The subject is empowering and enabling. In a recent poetry workshop, one student grinned at me and said, ‘This is so exciting.’ I have never heard that in an English Language or Literature classroom.

Yes, writing is a skill, but it is also a craft and an art. I love teaching English Literature but as Ted Hughes exemplified, it does not foster creativity. Creative Writing as product is central to our culture. Why then is Creative Writing as practice not central to our education system?

At the same time that creative writing is being withdrawn from the A-level curriculum, it is increasingly studied in higher education: including combined degrees, there are more than 500 creative writing courses in UK universities. Given the intention signalled by the DFE in recent years to improve continuity and progression between A-level and higher education, the withdrawal of A level Creative Writing is an extraordinarily retrograde step.

A petition started by the National Association of Writers in Education has reached nearly 4,000 signatures.

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2 thoughts on “Creativity foreclosed

  1. I am also teaching this course at a sixth-form college. We recruited over 50 students in our first year of offering it, and now have over 70 in the first year and 40 continuing to A2. The progress they have made, and the amount of quality learning that has taken place has been astonishing. The course is completely different to A-level Literature or Language, and has many advantages, one of which is the way it opens up the world of writing to students who may not begin with the cultural background and confidence to tackle traditional Literature courses. By allowing teachers to tailor the examples and stimuli they provide in lessons to the students’ own interests and cultural starting-points, we are then able to guide them towards more and more challenging reading, as well as pushing their own writing. Many of my students started with very low GCSE results and had never read beyond the GCSE curriculum or YA fiction; by the summer term of the AS year, they were choosing to read Duffy, Carter, Kafka, Orwell, Vonnegut, Austen and an impressive range of contemporary literary fiction, poetry, screenwriting and journalism.
    The decision to axe the course is bewildering, heart-breaking and completely without academic justification.

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    • Thank you. Your account of matching teaching and exemplae to students’ interests and cultural starting-points brings out the importance of teachers’ commitment to the course and to ‘personalised’ teaching of their varied students, a commitment that is itself reason to continue the syllabus. The many comments left on the NAWE petition show the strength of feeling on this issue and the many other reasons why the course should be developed rather than axed.

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