Given its power not only to illustrate but also to inspire, film is still sadly underused as an educational tool. Yes, most English teachers will happily screen and study film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, but how many show, or even know of, Derek Jarman's meditation on the life and death of Wilfred Owen, War Requiem? And do art teachers ever screen or recommend John Huston's Moulin Rouge, a sometimes nave but still atmospheric look at the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec? Probably not. Things could be so different. From October 4, the fourth National Schools Film Week will provide a dazzling selection of films, all powerful and worthy of study at some level, or for some aspect of the curriculum.
Very often all a film needs from a good teacher is a little imagination and a leap of faith: film can work wonders in ways that conventional curriculum support materials don't always. National Schools Film Week will give teachers and pupils the chance to go and see films of educational interest, free, at 300 cinemas in any of five designated regions around the country.
Festival organiser Film Education, a charity funded by the film industry, hopes that it will give teachers the encouragement they need to take a chance on film and recognise its considerable educational potential. "We want to open up the cinema experience to as many pupils and students as possible, and not just those studying film studies or media studies," says Amanda White, teacher adviser at Film Education.
"This year there are films to interest students of modern languages, history and English literature. We also hope to make science more immediate by inviting young children to examine real insects after watching films like Antz or A Bug's Life. It's a great opportunity for teachers to broaden their own and their students' view of their subject."
Most of the listed films for secondary pupils explore four main themes: this year these are changes in the representation of young people; screen adaptations of literary texts; film in Germany, Italy and France; and film and the Holocaust.
Apart from looking at aspects of science, screenings for primary pupils will explore film heroes and villains and myths and legends in film. Selected screenings will be followed by talks from producers, actors, publicists, censors and critics.
The films themselves are impressively diverse. Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett give A Midsummer Night's Dream the Hollywood touch in Michael Hoffman's new production. There is also the powerful Regeneration, directed by Gillies Mackinnon adapted from Pat Barker's novel about the First World War. There's the astute and unaccountably underrated Pleasantville and, from 1946, David Lean's masterly adaptation of Dickens's Great Expectations, for once on the big rather than the small screen. And non-linguists shouldn't exclude themselves from films such as La Haine, Jean de Florette and the exquisite My Life as a Dog, if only to show students that sub-titles don't automatically mean unwatchable films.
Certain to be well attended are the preview screenings of The Last Days, a Holocaust documentary produced by Steven Spielberg. Post-screening, students will be invited to question survivors on their reactions to this and similar productions. Equally interesting should be the audience response (many sociologists among them, one hopes) to Kes, Ken Loach's 1969 film of Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave, shortly to be re-released nationwide (see following page).
But watching a film as an educational exercise rather than a recreational one is always going to attract criticism from sceptics, who regard it as a bit of light relief rather than serious study.
It's an attitude that is both unjustified and outdated as any top-flight film critic would attest and one which 17-year-old Deborah Oliver could no doubt effectively rebut. As the winner of the 1999 Sky Premier Young Film Critic of the Year award, now an established feature of National Schools Film Week, A-level student Deborah will deliver her verdict on The Matrix on the October 7 broadcast of Barry Norman's Film Night. She admits to watching anything and everything on screen although prefers home-grown fare to Hollywood. "The American film industry is over-reliant on big names, whereas the British start with a script then find the right cast," she says.
Watching students should note that knowing a lot about films is less important than being able to write well about them. And this year, even younger would-be Normans are being given their own chance to break into the big time. In association with Nickelodeon, the children's satellite channel, Film Education is asking nine to 13-year-olds for their views on a film of their choice. The winner gets a trip to a London film premiere and a tour of the Nickelodeon studios.
No such glory for the rest of us, but free entrance to a film or two is no mean alternative. Using film in the classroom can illuminate a subject in ways more conventional teaching methods seldom realise. It's a fact to which many teachers' eyes will be opened during National Schools Film Week.
The programme for National Schools Film Week is available from Film Education, tel:0171 976 2291, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.orgSupport materials: www.filmeducation.orgNSFW ticket hotline: 0171 930 3829 David Bradley in 'Kes', re-released 30 years after its first showing, in National Schools Film Week