Response to Withdrawal of Creative Writing at A-Level

Posted by jfh6 at Sep 14, 2015 04:10 PM |

On the Withdrawal of the A-Level in Creative Writing

On 10 September 2015, AQA announced that it had ‘not been possible to draft subject content for AS-Level and A-Level Creative Writing that meets the Department for Education’s guidance and Ofqual’s principles for reformed AS and A-Levels.’ For that reason, the short-lived qualifications – they were first run in 2013 – would be withdrawn from 2017, and the last examinations in the subject would take place in Summer 2018. The ostensible reasons given for this decision were that ‘it was concluded to be problematic that there are connections between Creative Writing and English, and that Creative Writing is (or could be construed to be) more skills-based than knowledge-based.’

In many ways, the key word here is in parenthesis – that is, ‘construed’. The decision seems based on an outmoded and prejudiced interpretation of the subject, on its (mis-)perception (by ministers and, potentially, the media), rather than on actual evidence. Creative Writing might be construed to be too close to English, too ‘skills-based’, too vocational, insufficiently ‘academic’.

These misperceptions ignore, of course, the massive development of the subject in Higher Education over the last thirty years, in its own right, at undergraduate, M.A. and Ph.D levels, as part of other degrees, as a joint honours subject, and as a single honours subject. During this time, the subject has developed its own identity, through organisations, benchmarks, conferences, and, particularly, literature (in the form of journals, monographs and textbooks). At university level, the subject continues to expand, often recruiting massively at a time when other, comparable disciplines are suffering. ‘The new A-Levels,’ according to the DfE, should ‘be linear qualifications and ensure that students are better prepared to progress to undergraduate study.’ But clearly, this is not the case for Creative Writing: the decision to discontinue the A-Level means that students will necessarily be less prepared for undergraduate study without the option of an AS or A-Level in the subject, and the kind of infrastructure (including extracurricular support, experienced teachers, and so on) which are the correlates of such provision.

At university level, despite what the DfE and Ofqual claim, Creative Writing has, over the years, come to be seen by English studies as a valuable and cognate, but also independent, discipline: there are overlaps, of course, but then there are overlaps between English and almost all other subjects on the curriculum. Like English, Creative Writing is a hybrid subject, in the best sense: it shares with English the academic focus on research, reading, critical reflection – but with a different emphasis, a different end-result, which it shares with more practical and vocational subjects, on creatively reshaping that research, reading, critical reflection into artistically-satisfying written communications (whether in the form of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and so on). As Michael Rosen said, in response to the decision to cut the AS and A-Level in Creative Writing: ‘How about [cutting] Art from Art?’ How about banning philosophising from Philosophy? How about stopping Medics practising Medicine, for that matter?

More broadly, the decision is based on a politicised suspicion of creative and artistic disciplines shared by both the current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, and her predecessor, Michael Gove – a suspicion which is itself riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. Creative Writing is the victim, it seems, of these multiple contradictions and paradoxes: on the one hand, Creative Writing is not seen as academically rigorous enough – it is ‘more skills-based than knowledge-based’; on the other, it is too closely connected to so-called ‘academic’ and ‘knowledge-based’ subjects such as English. On the one hand, Creative Writing is too vocational to have its own A-Level; on the other hand, more traditional, academic subjects such as English Literature now have to prove their worth – at least at university level – by offering more skills-based, vocational elements, according to the ‘employability’ agenda. On the one hand, the old A-Levels were perceived to be insufficiently ‘academic’; on the other hand, many university degrees have been too academic, not practical or vocational enough. On the one hand, creative and artistic subjects are (apparently) fine for the privileged few, and the majority of the current Cabinet – indeed, the Education Secretary herself can write and publish books; on the other hand, they should not be encouraged for the wider population. The list goes on. No doubt it is all about how one construes these paradoxes and contradictions.

Dr. Jonathan Taylor, University of Leicester
Acting Director Centre for New Writing
14 September 2015

The Officers of the English Association share the concern expressed in Dr Taylor’s statement about the withdrawal of the Creative Writing A Level from 2017, and would like to draw attention to an article released by the English & Media Centre on this subject.

Professor Martin Halliwell, Chair of the English Association

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