All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2015
One-Day Workshop on Writing Historical Fiction 10th Oct

Why the Creative Writing A Level shouldn't be axed

Only a few years after it was introduced, the Creative Writing A Level looks likely to be abolished, and I think that's a big mistake, as well as a great shame. I should say that I've no particular axe to grind, as I don't teach A Level and don't plan to start. But I do have an MPhil, and a PhD in Creative Writing myself, I've taught it at the Undergraduate level for the Open University, and my first book about Creative Writing - Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction - will be published by John Murray Educational in March next year. I've looked at the structure and syllabus of the Creative Writing A Level and I've worked with many people - by no means all aspiring writers - who would have benefited from it.

For my thoughts on what you're teaching when you teach Creative Writing, click here. And as I said when I signed the petition

The Creative Writing A Level puts the practice-led study of Writing where it should be: on an equality with Music, Drama and Visual Arts. As well as giving the professional authors of the future a chance to start learning their craft, it gives all students who take it a much larger, more useful and more transferable set of skills than the other arts can, underpinning whatever subjects and professions they choose in the future.

The petition sums it up thus:

The Creative Writing A level ignites a passion for writing and reading. It develops creative thinking, critical reading, articulate writing and mature personal self-reflection - all highly valued by employers. It prepares students for the 83 UK Higher Education Institutions which offer BA, MA and PhD study in Creative Writing. It is rigorous and challenging; it gives young people a voice; it is popular with students, teachers and parents; it is respected by Universities and nationally known writers; it is supported by organisations including The National Association for Writers In Education, The English Association, The National Association for the Teaching of English and The Common English forum. The decision to axe it is political rather than educational or pedagogic.

In other words:

  • No, an exam won't create a writer of genius from someone who wasn't going to be one anyway, but that's true of any discipline. 
  • The purpose of an exam is not to create geniuses but to be an enriching final goal for some students, and a solid foundation of knowledge, understanding and craft for those who want to go further in the discipline. 
  • Creative Writing demands a critical understanding of what you are trying to say and how you want to say it, and teaches the discipline of working say it as precisely and effectively as possible: students learn that it's not possible to communicate well unless they're thinking well. 
  • The discipline has long-term development built into it: a reflex to search for better words, sentences and structures becomes a lifelong habit.
  • It also teaches critical and reflective reading, which is a hugely important skill.
  • The self-reflective processes which are part of the course also develop valuable skills for later work as well as life in general.
  • Learning to work in an organised and deliberate way with the imagination is an essential skill in any career which involves creative thinking: not only do the creative industries form the third-largest part of the UK economy as a whole, but professions from engineering to social work draw on the creative imagination in a multitude of ways. 
  • There is no more subjectivity in judging, examining and grading Creative Writing than there is in judging, examining and grading the creative element in Music, Drama or Visual Art.
  • It's perfectly possible to form sufficiently objective principles and grade descriptors for examining such subjects, as I know from working with the Open University.
  • There is no reason to withdraw the Creative Writing A Level, and there are a great many reasons to continue it.