Protecting us from the threats of poetry

Today I read the prime minister’s ‘vision for a smarter state’ and, as I glanced across the page, I misread a line about how he intended to protect us from ‘terrorism, poetry and climate change’. It actually said poverty, which is a laugh. I’m pretty sure the way I read it was more accurate.

You see, the thing is, they’ve cancelled Creative Writing A level. The reasons? Apparently, there’s too much overlap with English Literature and the qualification is too focused on skills rather than knowledge.

Excuse me?

I don’t even know where to start.

Actually, you know what, I do. Let’s start with a couple of quotes..

“We have got to make sure that we have got… an education and skills system that provides people with the skills they need to take the jobs that are being created.” David Cameron, April 2014.

“Ensuring young people leave school with the skills they need to get a good job, an apprenticeship or a place at university is a crucial part of our long-term economic plan.” Department for Education Spokeswoman, April 2014

“We inherited a system where far too many children left school without the qualifications and skills to get on.” David Cameron, February 2015.

I could go on but it’d get pretty boring. If you don’t believe me have a look at this google search, or  a speech like this one, where the word skills occurs eight times. David Cameron generally seems pretty keen on skills. Helping young people gain more skills was his reason for further investment in apprenticeships, and also part of the rationale behind the National Citizen Service initiative he’s so very keen on. As he has mentioned before, getting a bunch of exam certificates doesn’t necessarily guarantee that students leave schools with the skills they need to work in industry. Y’know, small things like literacy, creativity, initiative and ability to analyse, or work on self-guided extended projects. The kinds of things a student might learn doing an A level in Creative Writing.

So, is it really true that most A levels are packed full of content and less focused on skills? It depends which A levels we’re talking about, I suppose. History, politics, economics, even the sciences, of course, have lots of facts. I think most teachers of those subjects would be rather offended, though, if you suggested they were not teaching skills as well. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the skills part of their curriculum was really what counted at A level. That it was far more important than the facts. And what about the subjects that present easy parallels to writing, such as Art and Music? So far, so obvious. But I want to make what is perhaps a more surprising comparison for a lot of people. What about maths? That’s all about skills. Are the DfE about to cancel that?

It’s funny because, although I teach Creative Writing now, I studied maths at University and taught the subject for many years. People often comment on how strange they find this but I often point out it’s not that different. That both are about developing and practising skills, rather than filling your brain full of facts. That the talents I have that make me a good novelist (depth of thought, thinking in abstractions, imagination, visualisation, making unusual connections, problem solving) are exactly the things that made me precociously good at maths when I was at school.

In my experience, A level maths was all about skills and practice. I remember my maths teacher walking up to me just before my final exam and asking if I’d revised. I told him that I hadn’t. I had known how to do everything and finished all the past papers months ago. Why would I need to revise? I could *do* the exam because I had learnt the skills. I got an A. I’m not telling you this story to show off, but so that you understand I am not making this up!

I don’t often agree with David Cameron but when he says that what our young people need are skills to equip them for life, I can’t help but nod along. So, after all that talk about skills, cancelling an A level because it teaches such things seems utterly bizarre.  The other justification, about overlap with English Literature, is also very strange. I’m not sure it’s even true. I mean, sure, they both involve reading. They both involve words. But I’ve done English Literature A level and a Creative Writing degree and I can’t say that the former prepared me for the latter particularly well. And, anyway, A levels overlap. Get over it. Look at Maths and Physics. Or Chemistry and Biology. Or Politics and History. etc etc.

This decision doesn’t exactly come as a shock to me. I do honestly wonder sometimes if this government is trying to protect us all from poetry. From art in general, and radical thinking. From things that challenge the established order. But the justification for this decision is the most ridiculous I’ve come across since a certain Russell Group University cancelled a course and said it was because the tutor left. As a graduate of a Creative Writing masters, a practitioner and teacher of the subject, I’m appalled and disappointed. As a graduate of a Mathematics degree and an ex-teacher of this other, skills focused subject, I am left utterly confused.

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About nicolamon

novelist and all that
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One Response to Protecting us from the threats of poetry

  1. Paula Sharratt says:

    Speaking truth to power again Monaghan: must be all that education.

    You’re right: when we pour and channel so much ‘money’ into science and technology we need to make that money accountable to local people ( and not simply the self appointed leaders of local communities) and great thinking skills give individuals the confidence to feel that asking questions is normal.

    Asking questions of science and technology, disseminating the finds and gifts of science so that everyone in a community knows what’s going on and can make a contribution.
    Are the lives of our potential scientists and technologists so mapped out that an A level in creative writing has been evaluated and found wanting so it can be discarded for everyone else not in the ‘science as elite sports’ camp?
    Of course not: science and technology need great interrogation, analysis and dissemination to be worth anything more than projects conducted by hamsters for big pharma.
    I know, you know: but can we change this ‘ruling?’ Yes we can!

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