Writers’ responses to the war on Creative Writing by @shazstead

Wielding our Pens

When the DfE decided to ditch the Creative Writing A’level recently, the free-thinking intellectuals most hurt by its unfathomable decision reacted as persecuted creatives have throughout history, they picked up their pens and wrote.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Sharon Stead and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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As a CREW teacher and writer, I’ve taken some comfort in the passionate responses from universities, teachers and students; diverse in stance, yet united in their incredulity, angered by the lack of consultation, frustrated by the government’s lack of understanding of this most precious discipline.Before I go on to list the DfE’s arguments and those reactions to it, I need to say this: There is something unique and wonderful about this course. We teachers know it. The students I teach know it. They absolutely adore it in a way I have not seen with other subjects, including Literature and Language, both of which can and do inspire real love and passion. Perhaps it relates to the fact they start with nothing other than an idea that makes it a particularly personal, poignant journey. The workshops, where we critique in an honest, supportive environment equip the students with resolve, pride, a personal understanding of process, technique and control – and I have not encountered quite this in any other part of my teaching. As Creative Writing teacher Emma Darwin says ” we’re giving students permission to experiment, permission to fail, to take our writing seriously“. The DfE decision denies our youth that enthusiasm and pride, that commitment to a discipline that would serve them well in academic, professional, creative and social spheres.

The DfE reasoning – and some of those responses to it – goes like this:

  1. The current CREW A’level “overlaps with English language and English literature

As a Head of English and teacher of Literature, Language and Creative Writing, this is simply not true. Of course it is complementary, it helps if you love literature just as it helps if you love art and history and music.   You need to be a reflective, wide reader –  as is the case for studying many A’levels. But this course allows for a much vaster range of writing to be explored. It’s this range, this diversity of forms and styles that makes it uniquely different – and begs me to dismiss this course as heavily skills-weighted as opposed to valuing knowledge. One of my own students and Head Girl, Sacha, puts it very eloquently: “As a student of both Creative Writing and English Literature I can most certainly say that whilst the subjects are a symbiosis, they are vastly different. The CREW course encourages us to evaluate the craft and effectiveness of a vast scope of literature from poetry and fiction to script and non-fiction, implementing this in our own writing“.

CREW A’level asks for an appreciation of literature without placing writers on pedestals. We regard writers critically, as flawed, passionate artisans of the craft – and it’s a different kind of understanding afforded to Literature students. Like the writers we read, we too start with a passion for reading, an often tenuous and elusive response, and an alarmingly blank page.

It’s a bit like comparing History of Art with Art. Cross overs are, happily, bound to occur. They promote joined up thinking, synergy and perspective. But one does not negate the value of the other. Incidentally, while speaking of Art – which of course the Government rightly keeps on the curriculum – I think it was Voltaire who said “Writing is the painting of the voice“.

The Writing on Demand component (40% of the AS CREW course) is a further unique strand. I know this because I sat this very exam alongside my students last summer. And as an ex-journalist, I can say, it was tough. Writing to a brief, two lots of 300 word articles in two hours is an excellent way to teach good journalistic skills and discipline. I wish some of those writers I commissioned whilst editing trade magazines back in the ’90s had done it. Crucially, there is nothing like it on the Language A’level syllabus so I cannot fathom why the DfE would imagine a cross-over. Writing at speed with precision and care is not merely a journalist’s tool, it is also essential for any one of us using communication in our crazily-paced professional lives.

2) This A’Level is not required by universities for degree courses in creative writing

At two years old, this A’level is still in its infancy. How could universities demand that Creative Writing undergraduates have sat an A’level which schools are only just beginning to offer?

It was developed with the UEA, provider of the country’s leading creative writing  degree programme whose alumni includes Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. It is lunacy to imply HE institutions do not value or endorse it – the Government just needed to give it a chance to embed. As a fledgling course, we know the Creative Writing A’level has been hugely welcomed by HE institutions and is in line with the current zeitgeist.  “The demand for creative writing courses in universities has grown exponentially over the past 10 years” notes playwright and novelist Steve May, Dean of the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries at Bath Spa University.  The A’level is championed by leading industry bodies such as The National Association for Writers in Education, which has set up a petition to save it, and The English and Media Centre. What more could the Government expect at this early stage? Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, suggests it is not only HE that will suffer from this A’level’s demise,: “Its loss will impede their [students’] understanding of and active engagement with our outstanding national creative industries and arts.” he warns.

3) It is studied by a relatively small number of pupils.”

Yes. Of course. As was English Language when it first emerged as a new A’level. Students and parents want to see proven form before they sign up and this takes time to emerge. But the will, the enthusiasm, the need for a creative writing A’level is there and it’s growing. This I know from the huge range of student/parental interest at our numerous open events.

This year our CREW A2 cohort comprises nine students; our AS cohort eight. This is as opposed to Latin (one pupil at AS) and Classical Civilisation (four pupils at AS, three pupils at A level). I make no comment on these other illustrious subjects – we must offer our youth a wide and varied curriculum if we are to help them reach their individual potential. But to use take-up numbers as an argument for axing CREW sounds like a political rather than educational rationale.

I don’t know if or when the DfE will consider a review of this decision. I don’t know whether the current Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, who – rather poetically perhaps – is an ex Head Girl of my school, will be persuaded to think again. I believe my indomitable CREW students are in the process of writing to her, inviting her to one of our lessons. I will keep you posted on that one.

In the meantime, we have two more years of teaching this incredible course before it is relegated to the co-curricular tea and biscuit slot along with aerobics and felt-making. If we want to see change, we must continue to pick up our pens and write to those responsible for making these ill-advised decisions. We must not accept this cull without a fight or we are also denying the next generation a voice that is recognised and valued.


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