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

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?