A War on Words: Why we need to keep Creative Writing A Level alive

Katherine Clements, critically acclaimed author of The Crimson Ribbon, argues to save creative writing to continue giving students confidence to express themselves. 

Last week the media reported that several GCSE and A Level qualifications are to be cut from the curriculum under the current programme of exam reform. What the papers didn’t say is that several other subjects are also under threat, including a new A Level in Creative Writing, introduced in schools just eighteen months ago.

I’ll be up front: I worked at a national exam board for three years during which I campaigned for the introduction of this qualification and then led the development and launch of it. It was a project close to my heart. But I no longer work in the industry and am no longer associated with the A Level in any way. So why should I care? I care because getting this particular A Level introduced was a big step forward for the subject as a recognised academic discipline, for the teachers brave enough to teach it, and for the students taking it. To lose it now would be shortsighted and regressive.

In an environment where cuts to arts funding have resulted in a host of great organisations struggling or going under, it’s even more important that young people should be offered artistic opportunities in the classroom. The whole ethos of the Creative Writing A Level is to provide such a space. By its very nature, the subject can’t be prescriptive. Just like art, music or drama, it must be led by students’ own interests, thereby legitimising their desire to create and giving them confidence to express themselves. They learn useful, practical skills too. It’s not a ‘soft’ subject. It’s challenging, if you do it right (ask any professional novelist). The academic value of the discipline is no longer questioned in higher education. Top universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. So why should it be questioned in schools? (Andrew Cowan, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA, argues this point here)

Ofqual, the regulatory body in charge of the exam industry, says of the Creative Writing A Level: ‘we do not at this stage have confidence that content can be developed that will meet our principles’. This is the same qualification that was approved by Ofqual just two years ago, was first taught in schools in September 2014 and was first examined last summer. Students have not yet completed the whole two-year course. And already the qualification is under question. It seems contradictory that course content so recently considered acceptable, even innovative and exciting, should now fail to meet the required standards, before it has had a chance to prove itself. It might be culled before it has even had the opportunity to try.

You don’t need to dig deep to see the political driving forces behind the decision- making. This programme of change to our exams system was introduced during the Gove years, despite being deeply unpopular with universities, exam boards, students and teachers from the outset.

With the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, pledging to reverse, or slow the pace of change under a Labour government, exam reform has become a hot topic. It’s an example of how education policy so frequently becomes a political pawn in the election game, leaving those who actually care about our education system exasperated and disheartened.

I’m all for a better, more accountable exams system, but not at the cost of arts education. In today’s secondary schools, targets, testing and league tables drive teaching. There’s little room for creativity, or innovative-thinking and self-expression. If qualifications like this one are slashed, where does that leave our future writers – the novelists, journalists, poets and playwrights who will become the next generation of artists and creative thinkers? Sure, they might do it anyway, and those with passion, talent and a bit of luck might make a decent living out of it. But shouldn’t they be supported by an education system that values the arts?

I’m a writer. I was forty when my first novel was published. I’m pretty sure that if I had had that kind of support and encouragement at school it wouldn’t have taken me so long. I’m not the only professional writer to think so. Students now have such an opportunity – what a shame if it is taken away.

For more details, and an informed response read the article from the National Association of Writers in Education

Katherine Clements is a novelist. Her critically acclaimed debut, The Crimson Ribbon, was published in 2014. Her second novel, The Silvered Heart, will be published in May 2015. Find her on Twitter @KL_Clements.

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