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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Sitting the A-level CREW exam with my students? What was I thinking?!

Sitting the A’Level CREW exam with my students last week felt a little like I was teetering dangerously on that precipice that says brave on one side and utterly foolish on the other. Everything to lose surely, and not much to gain. Everyone would expect a Head of English to shine at the subject she teaches, right? Well, I knew it was a risk and hey, I have no idea how it all went. But I’m very glad I did it.

It’s been *coughs* quite a while since I sat an exam. The adrenaline was pumping fast as we entered the exam hall. My fixed grin and thumbs up to the girls was met with nervous smiles and it hit home that this was just one of several similar ordeals they would endure this exam season. How we forget that intensity of pressure! My worst fear last week was public humiliation, possibly that joyous ignominy of a two line diatribe in the Mail on teachers failing their pupils etc. But these girls? their future – or their perception of it at least,  their university places hanging in the balance, their hopes and dreams and desires are all wrapped up in this.  Last week, my heart went out to them in a way it hadn’t before.

But just for a short while, my job was to be just like them: focussed, confident, clear-headed, in the zone. The invigilators, necessarily strict and serious, gave me that reassuringly guilty feeling you get when walking through Customs. My contraband pink squash was removed at the door. So far so good. I was pumped. And you need to be for this exam.

The ‘Writing on Demand’ paper in the AQA A’level CREW exam is all about being a journalist writing 300 words to a tight brief and to a tight deadline. You don’t know what type of journalist you are til you see those questions – what kind of voice you will need to adopt, who your audience is, what tone you’ll need to take, what the purpose of your writing is, what the subject is, whether it’s a blog, newspaper article, report or leaflet… This is quite an ask. No other A’level English exam demands this of our students – which is just one of the reasons we need Ofqual to make it stay… but that’s another blog for another day.

Of the four questions, the one asking us to address our writing heroes and how they have influenced our own writing stood out as something of a gift. I was delighted to discover that many of our girls opted for this one. Ruminating on our writing Gods and their choices, whether it be that of the first person, the present tense, their sparse style, the engaging first line… was simply a joy for any of us slightly obsessive writer/readers. Keeping it to 300 words was a challenge but I just kept with the mantra I’d been spouting to my girls for the past three months: refine, edit, distil, every word must earn its place…  The other question I opted for was asking for personal experiences of education – for a government website I think. I don’t believe even one of our girls went for this option. Was it because they felt their own experiences were somehow limited? Had I not taught them to be whomever they so wished when writing? to embellish? to lie? Mixing some personal experience (to really nail that authenticity of voice) with a little bit of embellishment for ‘entertainment’ value was the approach I took but I must say, that’s a question I will be revisiting with my next cohort as an exercise on writing in a different persona.

Two of the other questions demanded that candidates digest information – in one instance, two pages of copy on social media – before synthesising, summarising and rewriting. I steered clear of these as to an old hack like me they seemed more restrictive, but it was interesting that quite a few of our girls opted for one or both. I wonder if it is because there is that sense that they have something concrete to work with – some definite idea of content right there in front of them. I made a note-to-self to boost girls’ confidence by preparing them to write something out of a mere idea a bit more, to bravely find their own voice as they did with their coursework. But let’s face it, if they did it well, (Please God, they did!) what more can I ask of them?

Hello world!

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There was great delight among writers when Creative Writing was introduced as an A Level. Here, SHARON STEAD shares her experience of teaching the new qualification for the first time…

This goes out to anyone teaching AS Creative Writing for the first time this year. Chances are you will be nearing the coursework final draft stage as this forms the bulk of the course content. You’ve doubtless spent the best part of the year developing creativity and confidence in your students. You’ve cajoled, inspired, prodded, work-shopped, pummelled and polished. Their prose and poetry has, maybe for the first time, an audience with whom they’ve learned to trust their inner-most voice. They feel validated as writers and we feel magnificent. Right?
But of course, this is only part of the story. 60% to be exact. The remainder of their AS course is made up of the less glamorouInk Pellets but nonetheless, potentially rewarding exam component. Writing on Demand might initially seem to go against everything else you’ve been encouraging in your students for their coursework portfolios. ‘Give yourself space and time’, we have said. ‘Stop the white noise and listen to your inner voice’, ‘be playful with words’, ‘explore’ ‘have fun’ … Now we seem to be saying ‘know your audience’, ‘stick to the brief’, ‘edit as you write’, ‘do it really, really quickly’, ‘and do not exceed much over 300 words’. No wonder they get nervous.
It’s a big ask. Indeed, it’s more than likely that even a hardened hack in a Soho editorial office would have some idea of who on earth he’s writing for an hour before a deadline. So yes, it’s a challenge. But the good news is that there are ways your students can capitalise on all of their free writing experience, fulfil a brief with clear and tight precision, and still produce a piece that is ambitious and imaginative.
It’s worth us remembering that AS Creative Writing students come to us having been dragged through the GCSE Language paper which, (can I say this publicly?) can be a bit dull (too late). They were up against it time-wise, having had to gen up on so many writing purposes that it probably felt they never really got to intensively study the nuances of any form, purpose and audience beyond the mechanics. Yet they are, just a year later, asked to emulate professional feature writers, marketeers, Public Relations specialists or columnists – and all against the clock.
Many CREW teachers also teach Literature; indeed it’s perhaps the specialism in which most of us hold degrees. It is territory we can navigate. We explore texts, we discover critical material, we immerse ourselves in the canon, the genre, the themes and contexts. It’s all there – we invite students to draw it out. Conversely, the blank page of the Creative Writing student can feel like a wilderness, with notional, vague, approximate signposts leading everywhere and nowhere. Reading lists – while only as strong as the reading matter on it – are crucial in exposing students to different styles from Bill Bryson, Louis Theroux and Giles Coren, to India Knight, Truman Capote and Alison Pearson. Students must read, read, read, exploring and emulating a range of voices and creating their own repertoire of style, tone for themselves.
For Writing on Demand, students have to create the work from a brief that is designed to surprise and draw upon skills rather than knowledge – and they need to bring into play all you have taught them about finding an authentic voice. This is the key. All of those character studies, hot-seating exercises, tasks on structure, pitch and pace… these are not just for the coursework portfolio. They are crucial to the success of the writing on demand task. To find a voice they will need to establish a connection with their subject so they can explore it beneath surface level. Are they trying to persuade their readers of something? Change their minds? Just make them think? Having an authentic voice will stop their writing become a diatribe or worse – a gushing, pantomime voice of the supposed advertiser.
The formality of the piece can sometimes cause confusion. Students used to crafting formal academic essays sometimes find that transition to a more personal, conceptualised piece of writing really tough. Of course it depends on the brief but generally, my advice would be to get students to write looser. Not with lazy grammar nor bland vocabulary. Any informality must be a confident, active style choice. We don’t know what will come up in future exam papers, but so far on this new course, nobody has asked for a formal essay.
On the subject of weary vocabulary, I have noticed that some students, in the panic of the timed exam, can slip into cliché. I think they sometimes actually feel they are using it ironically. But an ironic cliché remains a cliché – so is best avoided. A tip from me is to establish a cliché corner notice-board. I have one in my classroom on which any gem I receive from a student gets plastered up on the wall. Some girls see it as a badge of honour to make it onto the board (irony once again being the language of the teen) – but I know they have their cliché radar on full as they enter the exam and that’s all that matters.

Sharon Stead is a former journalist and Communications Manager. She is now Head of English at Surbiton High School and Network Leader for English for United Learning.

This article first appeared in Ink Pellet Magazine – Spring 2015
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