Wielding our Pens – Writers’ responses to the war on Creative Writing

When the DfE decided to ditch the Creative Writing A’level recently, the free-thinking intellectuals most hurt by its unfathomable decision reacted as persecuted creatives have throughout history, they picked up their pens and wrote.

As a CREW teacher and writer, I’ve taken some comfort in the passionate responses from universities, teachers and students; diverse in stance, yet united in their incredulity,  angered by the lack of consultation, frustrated by the government’s lack of understanding of this most precious discipline.Before I go on to list the DfE’s arguments and those reactions to it, I need to say this: There is something unique and wonderful about this course. We teachers know it. The students I teach know it. They absolutely adore it in a way I have not seen with other subjects, including Literature and Language, both of which can and do inspire real love and passion. Perhaps it relates to the fact they start with nothing other than an idea that makes it a particularly personal, poignant journey. The workshops, where we critique in an honest, supportive environment equip the students with resolve, pride, a personal understanding of process, technique and control – and I have not encountered quite this in any other part of my teaching. As Creative Writing teacher Emma Darwin says ” we’re giving students permission to experiment, permission to fail, to take our writing seriously“. The DfE decision denies our youth that enthusiasm and pride, that commitment to a discipline that would serve them well in academic, professional, creative and social spheres.

The DfE reasoning – and some of those responses to it – goes like this:

  1. The current CREW A’level “overlaps with English language and English literature

As a Head of English and teacher of Literature, Language and Creative Writing, this is simply not true. Of course it is complementary, it helps if you love literature just as it helps if you love art and history and music.   You need to be a reflective, wide reader –  as is the case for studying many A’levels. But this course allows for a much vaster range of writing to be explored. It’s this range, this diversity of forms and styles that makes it uniquely different – and begs me to dismiss this course as heavily skills-weighted as opposed to valuing knowledge. One of my own students and Head Girl, Sacha, puts it very eloquently: “As a student of both Creative Writing and English Literature I can most certainly say that whilst the subjects are a symbiosis, they are vastly different. The CREW course encourages us to evaluate the craft and effectiveness of a vast scope of literature from poetry and fiction to script and non-fiction, implementing this in our own writing“.

CREW A’level asks for an appreciation of literature without placing writers on pedestals. We regard writers critically, as flawed, passionate artisans of the craft – and it’s a different kind of understanding afforded to Literature students. Like the writers we read, we too start with a passion for reading, an often tenuous and elusive response, and an alarmingly blank page.

It’s a bit like comparing History of Art with Art. Cross overs are, happily, bound to occur. They promote joined up thinking, synergy and perspective. But one does not negate the value of the other. Incidentally, while speaking of Art – which of course the Government rightly keeps on the curriculum – I think it was Voltaire who said “Writing is the painting of the voice“.

The Writing on Demand component (40% of the AS CREW course) is a further unique strand. I know this because I sat this very exam alongside my students last summer. And as an ex-journalist, I can say, it was tough. Writing to a brief, two lots of 300 word articles in two hours is an excellent way to teach good journalistic skills and discipline. I wish some of those writers I commissioned whilst editing trade magazines back in the ’90s had done it. Crucially, there is nothing like it on the Language A’level syllabus so I cannot fathom why the DfE would imagine a cross-over. Writing at speed with precision and care is not merely a journalist’s tool, it is also essential for any one of us using communication in our crazily-paced professional lives.

2) This A’Level is not required by universities for degree courses in creative writing

At two years old, this A’level is still in its infancy. How could universities demand that Creative Writing undergraduates have sat an A’level which schools are only just beginning to offer?

It was developed with the UEA, provider of the country’s leading creative writing  degree programme whose alumni includes Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. It is lunacy to imply HE institutions do not value or endorse it – the Government just needed to give it a chance to embed. As a fledgling course, we know the Creative Writing A’level has been hugely welcomed by HE institutions and is in line with the current zeitgeist.  “The demand for creative writing courses in universities has grown exponentially over the past 10 years” notes playwright and novelist Steve May, Dean of the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries at Bath Spa University.  The A’level is championed by leading industry bodies such as The National Association for Writers in Education, which has set up a petition to save it, and The English and Media Centre. What more could the Government expect at this early stage? Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, suggests it is not only HE that will suffer from this A’level’s demise,: “Its loss will impede their [students’] understanding of and active engagement with our outstanding national creative industries and arts.” he warns.

3) It is studied by a relatively small number of pupils.”

Yes. Of course. As was English Language when it first emerged as a new A’level. Students and parents want to see proven form before they sign up and this takes time to emerge. But the will, the enthusiasm, the need for a creative writing A’level is there and it’s growing. This I know from the huge range of student/parental interest at our numerous open events.

This year our CREW A2 cohort comprises nine students; our AS cohort eight. This is as opposed to Latin (one pupil at AS) and Classical Civilisation (four pupils at AS, three pupils at A level). I make no comment on these other illustrious subjects – we must offer our youth a wide and varied curriculum if we are to help them reach their individual potential. But to use take-up numbers as an argument for axing CREW sounds like a political rather than educational rationale.

I don’t know if or when the DfE will consider a review of this decision. I don’t know whether the current Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, who – rather poetically perhaps – is an ex Head Girl of my school, will be persuaded to think again. I believe my indomitable CREW students are in the process of writing to her, inviting her to one of our lessons. I will keep you posted on that one.

In the meantime, we have two more years of teaching this incredible course before it is relegated to the co-curricular tea and biscuit slot along with aerobics and felt-making. If we want to see change, we must continue to pick up our pens and write to those responsible for making these ill-advised decisions. We must not accept this cull without a fight or we are also denying the next generation a voice that is recognised and valued. Sign the petition. Keep CREW alive.

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/level-axe-creative-writing-prompts-furyhttps://www.change.org/p/nicky-morgan-mp-save-the-creative-writing-a-level?emmadarwin.typepad.com: The itch of Writing

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8 thoughts on “Wielding our Pens – Writers’ responses to the war on Creative Writing

  1. Emily Turner says:

    As a CREW student, I completely agree with everything which has been said in this passionate response. I can honestly say that even within the first half term of CREW A-level I have already grown so much as a writer. As Pablo Picasso said, you need to ‘learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist’ and CREW a level both lays out these rules for us and teaches us to apply them, but also unlike many other subjects gives us the permission to experiment with bending and breaking these rules in a safe constructive environment. I honestly feel that as a result of CREW a level, we will produce a generation of writers who are extremely educated, refined and well practised in their skill which will ultimately result in a flourish of unique and well crafted literature being produced, which is ultimately an amazing thing. Students deserve to be taught the skill of writing as much as they deserve to be taught subjects like maths, languages and sports. By taking away CREW a level you are effectively taking away the opportunity to have a truly unique creative outlet which, I feel is also highly valuable in our society. People need to learn that you don’t have to limit yourself to the 140 characters of a tweet to have your voice heard!

    Thank you for reading!

    Emily Turner

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Katharine says:

    I really wish Creative Writing had been on the syllabus when I was at school – it might not have taken me so many years to figure out what the hell I was doing! Wonderful post – let’s hope you can change Nicky Morgan’s mind…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pippa Walker says:

    I’m a CREW student, and I see no logic in these so-called flaws and reasons for cutting the subject whatsoever. As Ms Stead has so eloquently portrayed here these ‘reasons’ make little to no sense once considered, especially taking into account the outcry at the cut; if there weren’t enough people taking the subject, if the universities don’t rate it, then why on earth are so many people as troubled over this as they are? And if that doesn’t speak for itself all it takes is an article like this to undermine the reasoning for this cut. It doesn’t seem right to me that a subject more popular, and more fast-growing than plenty of others is given two years until doomsday for ‘crimes’ like these.
    This is easily my favourite subject, and I want nothing more than to continue it through the rest of my education (preferably the rest of my career as well), but I’m now fighting an uphill battle with my parents to be allowed to even take it past AS, seeing as how “it’s rated so badly it’s not even going to exist in a couple of years”! It’s unbelievable such an extraordinary subject is being treated like this.

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  4. Elisa Andrews says:

    A few short weeks is all its taken for me to fall in love with creative writing. I fear if CREW A level were removed that the level of creativity in writing and amung students would fall, and with it the opportunity for great literature. I don’t see how CREW A level is any different from, say, Drama A level. In that it teaches a creative medium. As such I am horrified to think that one day the CREW A level may not be an option for students.

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  5. Ciara Hay says:

    I could not agree more with this emphatic and well-worded piece in response to the axing of the Creative Writing A Level. As an AS student of this wonderful subject myself, I could explain to anyone in great detail how much value the course holds. Despite only being just over six weeks in, I have seen my writing develop with the help of not only my teachers, but my peer as well. As Mrs Stead says, “CREW A’level asks for an appreciation of literature without placing writers on pedestals.” This course has given me confidence in my writing, and I can already see it influencing the standards of the essays I write in my other subjects. In response to the supposed “cross-over” of CREW with Literature and Language, I really must reject that statement as an AS Literature student myself. Yes, CREW helps me when it comes to wording my essays on The Tempest, but what I am taught in one classroom is distinctly different from the other. Yes, I study short stories in both, but I actually write my own in Creative Writing. I have developed skills that I would not obtain from my Literature class.
    Since my days in junior school, I have been looking for a creative outlet in my English classes, but that window of opportunity has grown smaller with each passing year; when I heard about the CREW course, I could feel my heart rocketing around my chest in excitement. But now, after only two years of it being available in a very small number of schools, the DfE has decided to snatch it away from the fingers of so many potential writers? This course must be given time, as all of the other courses were. There were large numbers of students flocking to the creative writing stand in our A Level options fair, before we we’re informed of our beloved subject’s fate. There is so much potential here, in the course and in the students who are drawn to it- you need to let it grow, not stunt it.
    Thank you,
    Ciara Hay

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  6. Katherine Buckel says:

    As a CREW AS Level student it is not surprising to me at all that universities, teachers and students alike are deeply disappointed that the DfE has discarded this incredible subject and naturally are determined to win it back. I could not agree more that there is something about the CREW course that makes it stand out against other subjects, even English Literature and Language – perhaps it’s the gorgeous freedom and lack of limiting rules we are given in our tasks, which verifies that every student is deeply engaged and connected with what they are writing about and thus of course will enjoy it more! I also believe in this aspect that the course develops independent thinking – coming up with our entirely own ideas for pieces to use in workshops for instance – which is a necessary tool for any kind of future in life.
    CREW is important for students such as myself in that it provides a perfect alternative to English Literature or Language. I believe CREW would go on to become a significantly more popular AS level choice with a proven track record, because it emphasises the practical skills rather than the theoretical. Reinstating what others have said I find it rather tragic that after just two years of blooming the CREW course is being cut completely. The DfE’s decision disregards the valid creativity one puts to use in CREW A-Level, no different to Drama, Art and Music. I think, or rather I am quite sure that my favourite element of the course is the build up in expression of individuality in every student that takes it, which is wonderfully apparent after a matter of weeks. My peers and I are all developing and improving our writing without losing our own necessary, unique style thanks to this course, and I have no doubt that the removal of CREW will leave in its wake a hole that surviving courses could not fill.

    Thank you for reading!
    Katherine Buckel

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Helena Blyth says:

    As a member of CREW it is my duty to defend this wonderful subject, to sustain it for future pupils to enjoy. Before I started my creative writing A level course I didn’t really know what to expect. The first lesson blew me away. It was about our ideas, forcing us to think independently and creatively, there is no boundaries. I have fallen in love with this subject. I am passionate about the things I write and other things I read from my fellow classmates. It’s crucial to keep this A level in order to not deprive other students from expressing their thoughts and ideas, escaping reality and getting lost in this subject. Writing is a passion which can be developed as well as enjoyed and the creative writing A level gets a perfect balance, please let it continue.
    Thankyou for reading,
    Helena Blyth

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