Lights, cameras, English literature

4th October 1996 at 01:00

Next week's schools film festival is brought to you by Film Education, whose fresh approach reaches beyond media studies. Next week, as usual, tens of thousands of school pupils and college students will go to the movies. But these excursions will be different. From October 7-11, the first National Schools Film Week will give them an opportunity to see, learn about and cele-brate cinema in ways scarcely imaginable a few years ago. That they are now able to do so is almost entirely due to one small but influential organisation.

Founded in 1986, Film Education regularly posts film study packs to teachers in schools and colleges, organises workshops, arranges special film screenings for teachers and students, and publishes study materials. In recent years, it has made some excellent programmes for The Learning Zone, the early morning education slot on BBC2. Ian Wall, Film Education's project director, says it all began when the secondary sector started showing a growing interest in the media.

"By about 1986, every examining board seemed to be developing GCSEs in media studies," he recalls. "A whole new constituency of teachers had appeared, many of them specialists in English, but without a real background in film or media. It was obvious that there was a growing demand for the right kind of teaching materials."

Supported by David Puttnam, producer of such films as The Mission, Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, Ian Wall approached film industry representatives to seek financial support for an educational venture that could benefit both themselves and students. Not surprisingly, the industry was more enthusiastic about the idea than about financing it; but with Puttnam's aid ("a very persuasive man," says Ian Wall), a year's funding was delivered. Ten years on, the film industry's main distributors continue to support it.

Many of Film Education's early energies were devoted to producing concept guides that focused on such topics as audiences, narrative and genre. Generally, they were well received. But the rave reviews came with the 1992 publication of Reading Movies, a study pack that included a video with selected feature film clips.

The film clips made all the difference. "Until then, students were only able to get slide packs or printed materials," says Ian Wall. "For the first time, teachers actually had a set of film clips that meant students could concentrate on specific issues. The response from teachers clearly showed they wanted more."

Reading Movies exemplified the Film Education philosophy: that film should be studied as a text alongside, and equal with, others of different form. Ian Wall is emphatic that film education is not simply a question of visual literacy - showing students how to read images, for example, or pointing out different approaches to cinematography - but is also about questioning cultural values either apparent or implicit in particular productions.

Film Education is free to reject films or use them as it sees fit, says Ian Wall. Many films are self-selecting - Henry V, Sense and Sensibility, Othello - but others pose problems. Teacher previews are arranged that help decide whether such productions will be acceptable.

Those deemed suitable become the subjects of comprehensive study guides, from Independence Day and Richard III to The Secret Garden, GoldenEye and The Age of Innocence. The list reflects Film Education's non-prescriptive and non-judgmental approach to film study: the key thing is that each film makes rewarding learning.

Film Education aims to cultivate this enthusiasm through its non-specialist guides. While there are clear cross-curricular uses for, say, the Shakespeare films, others offer equally worthwhile opportunities. The Awakenings guide, for example, was as relevant to psychology as to media studies, while Nixon offered teachers of history and politics opportunities for debate. But Schindler's List most successfully bridged the curriculum, finding a place in media studies, history, politics, religious studies and English literature.

Schindler's List brought one of Film Education's finest achievements, says Ian Wall: distribution of a free video of the film, study guide and specially-commissioned companion video to every school history department in the country. In several cities, screenings of the film were accompanied by talks from Holocaust survivors.

No less memorable for both students and teachers were question-and-answer sessions with such grandees as Alan Parker, Sir Richard Attenborough and Kenneth Branagh. At BAFTA in 1990, Mel Gibson shared his thoughts with students on adapting Hamlet for the screen while, more recently, Alan Bennett addressed a similar audience on the film of his play, The Madness of King George.

Not all of Film Education's efforts are confined to these shores. Training courses for media teachers were first given in Washington in 1991, then in the next two years in Kiev and Moscow, where Russian and British students made a documentary on the Russian capital. In Kiev, following a screening of The Killing Fields, Sir David Puttnam led a seminar on the making and marketing of the film - "a real eye-opener for the Russians", says Ian Wall, recalling the reactions of people quite unfamiliar with the massive publicity that surrounds any major film release over here.

The Russians would be equally astonished at the scale of Film Education's latest project. National Schools Film Week is expected to involve more than 100,000 students and pupils up and down the country, offering both teachers and students golden cinematic experiences.

There are free screenings of a wide range of feature films. Some of them (Psycho, Apocalypse Now, 2001: a Space Odyssey) are drawn from those recently voted by teachers the Ten Films that Shook the World.

Then there is a programme of Penguin Classic workshops, in which students watch the film of a classic text - such as Sense and Sensibility or Of Mice and Men - before discussing the merits of the screen adaptation.

Other attractions are enticingly varied. On October 7 at the Empire Leicester Square, Wind in the Willows director Terry Jones and actors Steve Coogan and Robert Bathurst (Mole and St John Weasel respectively) will introduce the film and answer questions. Other cinemas have invited audiences for Babe to dress as farm animals or, in the case of The Adventures of Pinocchio, as their favourite toy. There are workshops on marketing movies and selected venues will host study sessions on writing film reviews, with professional critics passing tips to aspiring Barry Normans.

Having stuck things out through bad patches - "there were times when we didn't know if we'd last the week" - Ian Wall now feels confident enough of Film Education's future to talk of forthcoming attractions. Coming soon is Screening Shakespeares, a resource that will cover five of the plays in combined print, television and video; a Reading Movies-type pack for primary schools; and the possibility of a new BBC Learning Zone series on selected aspects of the film industry.

If things next week look bright for students and pupils, the long-term future holds more promise for Film Education. "The film has legs," they say in Hollywood when they think they're on to a winner. Film Education, it seems, is just getting into its stride.

Reading Movies video study pack Pounds 16.50. Free study guides are available for Othello; Henry V; Independence Day; Richard III; The Secret Garden; The Age of Innocence; Awakenings; GoldenEye; The Wind in the Willows; Schindler's List; The Madness of King George; Nixon; Sense and Sensibility; Ten Films that Shook the World. Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London W1P 3AA

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