There is no coherent consensus on how film studies should be taught. Can the BFI change attitudes? Aleks Sierz reports
If you want children to read Shakespeare, wake up their imaginations with a sex symbol. In the British Film Institute's recent Audit of Media in English, the most often quoted example of the use of film in the classroom was Baz Luhr-manns's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which stars Titanic heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio.
Alan Howden, chair of the BFI's new film education working group, which in August was asked to draw up a strategy for using film in schools by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, confirms that Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet "is already a classic example of the use of film in the school area".
To a large extent, he says, "films are used as a way into other aspects of the curriculum - particularly in English teaching and the study of novels and plays, where film is treated as a performed version of a text rather than as a distinct medium in its own right.
"There's a strong view among the working group's members - who include teachers, academics and film industry representatives - that film teaching is not carried out very confidently," he says. "While many teachers believe it's a good thing, there's no coherent view about how best to do it."
With an April 1999 deadline, the working group's remit is to produce a report on how to improve film education at all levels and "to look closely at barriers to better practice, such as the availability of materials".
One barrier, for example, is copyright. "Screening an entire film during school hours is no problem as long as the film is available on video cassette," says Alan Howden. "The Copyright Act makes the use of video cassettes legitimate in formal education. So teachers shouldn't be put off by the strong labels that say 'for private use only'."
But, with resources, the position is more complicated. "In preparing specially-produced teaching materials," says Alan Howden, "the use of extracts from Hollywood films has caused major difficulties because obtaining permission to use them is incredibly difficult. To license extracts, film companies have to ask dozens of people, many of whom are entitled to payments. This takes a long time and can be expensive."
Although Mr Howden is a BFI governor and head of film acquisition at the BBC, he considers himself an "outsider" in the film education community. An insider's view comes from Cary Bazalgette, the BFI's education officer and secretary of the working group.
According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport report A Bigger Picture, the British audience for film is less adventurous than in other countries, so, says Ms Bazalgette, "the aim is to use education to improve access and understanding".
But while the report recommends the BFI should give priority to stimulating interest in film among the public - particularly children, Ms Bazalgette believes we have to be realistic about current priorities in education, which focus on literacy and numeracy rather than the media.
"There won't be more classroom time for film, even though half the teachers we asked spend more time on media studies than the curriculum requires," she says. "But it's surprising how little training is available, and it's not being inspected. One of our aims is to produce recommendations that the Office for Standards in Education can address." (Since 1988, the BFI has lobbied for media education to be included in the national curriculum.) While Cary Bazalgette believes the working group will be enormously helpful in defining the needs, gaps and problems of the provision of film education, she says the BFI is already backing this up with a more practical approach. "We have just started piloting a teacher training initiative. We teach it, and the Open University assesses it. We plan to expand it next year, so people can get teacher training in film at MA level."
The change in the political climate is good news for the study of film in schools, she believes. "Under the Tories, film was considered politically dodgy. You know, schoolkids shouldn't be wasting time watching soap operas, they should be reading books. But with Labour's more populist attitude to the cultural industries, media studies may get more resources.
"The Government is in an interesting quandary. On one hand, it is promoting a 19th-century version of literacy, but, on the other, it's setting up the national grid for learning, which will require a 21st-century version of literacy.
"The national grid will carry the moving image - video clips and films on the Internet.
"At grassroots level, teachers know moving-image media are central to children's lives, and that they have to teach about them in practical terms."
One aspect of the BFI's educational work will be to hold regional seminars to find out how best to tackle film education - formal and informal. "We are also sending out a call for evidence," says Ms Bazalgette, "which welcomes teachers' views about current provisionand difficulties and practical steps for the future."
With Culture Secretary Chris Smith proposing to absorb British Screen (a government-funded film-financing body), the British Film Commission (which lobbies to attract film productions to Britain) and lottery-funded film activities into a revamped and renamed BFI by 2000, the next century may see improved prospects for film education.
"The reorganisation of the BFI will strengthen its core educational activities," says Ms Bazalgette. "Education will be one of its four key remits. The organisation is now better focused than ever and we will be doing our best to develop film culture in the United Kingdom, especially among young people."
For more information on the BFI's Film Education Working Group, tel: 0171 957 8973. 'The Audit of Media in English' costs pound;5 and is available from BFI Education, 21 Stephen Street, London W1R 2LN. Tel: 0171 255 1444, ext 2329.