'If the government is serious about the study of our literary canon, why abolish creative writing A-level?'

5th April 2015 at 14:00

Oli Belas, teacher and independent academic, writes: 

Assuming no change in government come May, schools will start teaching the first wave of reformed GCSE and A-level courses from September 2015. A second wave of reformed courses will, under current plans, come on-stream in 2017. Courses for which reforms have either not been proposed or not accepted will not be taught after September 2016. 

Ofqual has several criteria by which the suitability of GCSE, AS, and A-level courses are assessed: one criterion has to do with the development of “core content”. Another requirement is that courses must not substantially overlap with one another; they must be distinct. On 26 March, Ofqual announced that, for several courses of study, “we do not at this stage have confidence that content can be developed that will meet our principles". 

The list of courses includes the A-level in creative writing, and it strikes me as curious, not to say just plain wrong-headed, that this course should be under threat. 

Perhaps you might read “curious” as encoding nothing more than my personal distress due to professional and personal biases. Perhaps, that is, I am just another disgruntled English teacher and failed or would-be writer, another of the Blob’s malcontents.

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Consider that at the time of writing, the creative writing A-level is not yet even two-years-old. That is, the first A2 cohort has yet to sit final examinations. So Ofqual’s concerns about “core content” development cannot be a mask for the familiar charge of the country’s precipitous decline in educational standards and results, as there is as yet no yardstick against which to measure such a decline. 

Perhaps, then, Ofqual’s concerns really are about whether core content, in line with its principles and standards, can be developed for creative writing. At this point, enter the Qualifications Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the body charged with monitoring and advising on standards and quality in HE. 

The QAA produces benchmark statements for all subjects studied in HE institutions, and in February of this year – a month before Ofqual’s announcement – it published a revised statement for English. One of the aims in revising the benchmark statement was “better to reflect the roles of literature, language and creative writing within the study of English". Indeed, so well is creative writing recognised – by the QAA and HE institutions at least – as a distinct discipline within the wider subject area of English that the QAA plans in the near future to publish a benchmark statement solely for it.

The success of creative writing in HE institutions is reflected not just by the QAA’s benchmark statements – both present and forthcoming – or by certain academics’ staunch defence of the discipline from Hanif Kureshi’s glib dismissals, but also by the very fact that an A-level programme has been developed. With the status, standards, and overall health of HE creative writing looking so good, it seems to me that Ofqual needn’t allow its concerns about subject distinction and content development to keep it up at night.

There are other reasons for preserving and developing A-level creative writing. Here are a few of the more pressing. 

Firstly, a little more continuity between school phases could, I think, only be a welcome thing. One of the government’s oft repeated ideals for primary-school improvement is that all pupils should be able to write a short story by the end of key stage 2. Why this should be seen as a gold-standard for one key stage, but more or less dismissed from others is incomprehensible. 

Secondly, anyone who has kept even half an eye on the educational debate over the last few years will be quite familiar with Michael Gove’s commitment to the English literary canon, and with his noble rhetoric about initiating students into a literary heritage that is theirs by right. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to suggest that if we really want students to feel part of a literary heritage, we might want them to experience something of what has gone into forming that heritage: if you want to understand the craft of writing sonnets, speeches, short stories, and so on, why not try your hand at them?

It is a sad irony that so much political breath and ink has been used to espouse the value of our cultural heritage, while so little thought has been given to how students might actually experience and participate in it. The basic model for secondary English at the moment is a version of literary criticism. So familiar are we with this model that it has come to seem the “natural” mode for doing English. What has been forgotten somewhere along the way is that literary criticism is just one mode of creative writing – and a wonderful one at that – among others. 

Thirdly, it’s hardly news that the CBI has fielded widespread concern from employers about young employees’ poor skills in functional literacy and communication. Creative writing, which, let us remember, is seen by universities in terms Ofqual should recognize – as both rigorous and distinct – is perhaps better situated than any other strand of English to address at least two common concerns about crucial employability skills. 

Moreover, at a time when there are new and increased pressures on schools to address issues of national and cultural identity and so-called “fundamental British values”, one would hope to see government agencies welcoming any academic discipline with a clear yet challenging programme for improved self-expression, critical dialogue, and creative thinking. Alas, it looks likely that A-level creative writing is to be hobbled before it has had a chance to walk.

At the risk of sounding a little conspiratorial, it is sometimes hard to resist the thought that any secondary-level course with the creativity a part of its remit, let along any course with “creative” in the title, is, in the current climate, destined for the rocks: witness Nicky Morgan’s recent denigration of the arts humanities, couched in the language of good common sense. Notice too that Ofqual’s announcement came on March 26, and that exam boards have only until April 7 to make their cases.

With all of the above in mind, it’s a shame, to say the least, that with Shakespeare set to occupy even more space on the secondary curriculum than he does at present, and with the Romantics set to make a comeback (as if they ever really went away), so much of what they wrote has been retained, yet so little of what they (still) say; so much of the body, yet so little of the spirit.

I presume that Blake is still regarded as a canonical author. Perhaps, faced with the incoming English curriculum, this is to presume too much, as whether or not he should be regarded as a Romantic remains a live question. In any case, I leave the last words to him, for Blake’s is a lesson our politicians and policy makers would do well to learn: “the true method of knowledge is experiment … As none by traveling over known lands can find out the unknown, so from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more".

Oli Belas is a member of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, and the British Educational Research Association



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