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Kerpow! Move over superhero

To put film back on arts education agenda we must offer something other than Spider-Man, says Cary Bazalgette.

At this month's Anti-Bullying Alliance conference, Lord Puttnam attacked images of aggression and violence on film and television. No doubt his arguments were well meant and well received in that context. But might he have encouraged those busy folk who are always eager to pontificate about what children should not see? What worries me is, who speaks up for what they should see?

Public subsidy and charitable trusts spend millions to ensure that children and young people get to hear music, read poems and novels, watch plays and visit art galleries, but children's audio-visual consumption is left almost entirely to the marketplace. Public debate about film and television for children centres on protection, never on entitlement.

Few people are shocked that most British teenagers' film viewing is dominated by Hollywood blockbusters; would we be equally content to confine all their reading to Spider-Man comics?

To ask this is not to denigrate either Hollywood or Spider-Man (both brilliant in my opinion) but to wonder why the breadth of experience that is taken for granted in other sectors of arts education is simply off the agenda when it comes to moving image media.

I'm being disingenuous of course: the answer is that, in Britain, (a) film, and television, are not regarded as part of the arts, and (b) as a consequence, it's not seen as necessary that children learn about them.

Readers will protest that this is nonsense: film and video are used all the time in schools; children love them; they're such a stimulus. I rest my case precisely on those two words: "use" and "stimulus".

Imagine saying "we used a poem today" or "Shakespeare is such a stimulus".

We agree that poetry and Shakespeare are cultural entitlements: they are worth learning about in their own right; we don't just use them to achieve something else. To say that film and video get "used" betrays their status: they could never, it is believed, have the same cultural value as literature.

In other countries, public subsidy is poured into film distribution and exhibition specifically for children, because film is recognised as an important element, not only of national culture, but of children's global cultural heritage as well. Could this happen here?

In a small way, it already does. For the past five years the British Film Institute has been developing resources for use within the national literacy strategy, based on short films. Most of the films were not made for children, but they are powerful texts that reward repeated viewing and draw out inferential skills.

The impact has been amazing. Teachers claim improvements in reading, writing and confidence. But above all, both they, and the children, love the films, and want more. The transformative potential of the moving image doesn't have to be argued once you have been overwhelmed by the emotional impact of a story told in images, sounds and music. But the real impact goes further.

As teachers gain confidence in working with film in the context of literacy, they start to recognise the value of looking at texts across different media, and to understand that concepts such as narrative, genre, character and setting are not medium-specific.

We have worked with 35 schools for over a year. Finding films that are both strong enough and short enough requires trial and dialogue with teachers.

The biggest barrier is lack of confidence with film language: not the technical vocabulary, but awareness of the conventions through which film tells stories, conveys mood, manages information.

Short one-off training sessions aren't enough, so we have invited LEAs to send us people to train in moving image media literacy. We aim to train at least 100 in a year.

What are the prospects for wider acceptance of moving image media as part of children's cultural entitlement? The national strategies are encouraging literacy advisers to build moving image activity into teaching. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's English 21 project will be addressing the concept of "texts" at a seminar in Sheffield on June 9.

And the BFI would be delighted to help the Anti-Bullying Alliance select 10 films that could contribute to children's moral awareness and emotional intelligence.

Cary Bazalgette is head of education, British Film Institute.


In its spring newsletter, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in London lists seven films recommended by staff at CLPE and the British Film Institute: My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki) A daring, funny and enchanting exploration of the world from a child's point of view.

Shrek. Sharp, witty film questions what is beauty

King Kong (the original). Giant gorilla ravages city in black and white

Goodnight Mister Tom. Explores WWII themes

Baboon on the Moon (short BFI Starting Stories film) story of a lonely baboon with a strange job.

Kirikou and the Sorceress (Michel Ocelot). Colours, settings and characters drawn from West African settings.

Anders Artig (BFI Starting Stories). Short 2D colour animation

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