Features Essays Published 5 October 2015

Creative Writing 404

Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London Poppy Corbett rails against the decision to scrap the Creative Writing A-Level.
Poppy Corbett

It’s boom time for Creative Writing in education! (Yay!) Courses continually crop up across the country. Numerous universities now offer degrees in Creative Writing including Royal Holloway, Birkbeck, Roehampton and Gloucestershire to name a few. It’s one of the ‘English family’ of subjects (literature, language, creative writing) and a couple of years ago, the exam board AQA began an A-Level in it, with help and advice from creative writing academics, novelists, poets and playwrights.

Or – it used to be boom time… (Boo!) Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom (read that phrase sarcastically), OfQual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) and the DfE (Department for Education) have axed the Creative Writing A-Level. Reasons cited from DfE were vague: “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”. I mean, that’s as vague as my uncertain knowledge of the rules of Netball which I played for at LEAST five tarmac-scarred years at school.

What makes the decision more frustrating is that the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) benchmarking statements for English from this year recognizes that Creative Writing is a distinctive, knowledge-based subject. In fact, the QAA thinks it’s such a distinctive subject that Creative Writing is going to receive its own benchmark statement. It appears the left arm of the government doesn’t know what the right arm is doing. How typically cack-handed of the people I must call my politicians.

Teachers and writers across Britain have spoken out against the decision. Dr. Doug Cowie, Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University of London, says it demonstrates a lack of understanding “the intellectual and creative depth and potential of the subject”. Cowie considers that the DfE made this cut because they fail to see Creative Writing as a standalone subject: “Creative Writing must be, according the DfE, like literature, but not like literature, and thus, cannot be a subject at all, according to a minister with no interest in the idea that critical engagement with, thinking about, and responding to the world can be developed through the creative practice of written literary forms.” Similarly, Lucy Tyler, MA Course Leader of Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Gloucestershire highlighted the broad skills Creative Writing offers: “When we cut a practice-based subject like Creative Writing – a subject with significant resource sharing possibilities – we’re saying that it’s possible to do without creative education. We’re showing students that their enjoyment of creative writing is something that they shouldn’t pursue. We’re, in effect, limiting the breadth of their thinking.” It is as though the word ‘interdisciplinary’ is too much to bear for our fiery politic overlords. The thought of a subject having more than one learning outcome may result in combustion. (If only it did, then I could chuck out the Nicky Morgan-shaped Guy I’m building for Bonfire Night.)

Sadly, it’s the government that will suffer from this short-sighted decision. It’s no secret (yet rigorously ignored) that the cultural and creative industries are the UK’s fastest growing industry. The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value launched their report this year arguing for the importance of sustaining these industries. In the report’s introduction Vikki Heywood CBE (Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts) writes that the inequalities that exist in Britain prevent “equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education”. Higher education is one way to encourage access to the arts – particularly important for students who cannot, for example, easily afford the fees of an Arvon course. A Levels are the last (free) chance for many to pursue their passions before they begin earning a living. If you cut the courses, you cut the opportunities. This is not only bad for students, it’s bad for the cultural future of Britain.

I know from my experience of teaching (and being taught) that Creative Writing doesn’t just teach people how to write – it’s a course that expands the students’ minds and worlds in more subtle ways. This is why I think it’s valuable: my students can be at once historians, journalists, academics, psychologists and time-travellers. It’s the value of the subject that Tyler also considers has been misunderstood: “When we cut an A Level, we’re saying something about the value of that subject. We’re saying that we consider it to be inessential for this age group to have training in that field.” The playwright Barney Norris, who won several awards for Visitors also highlights the subject’s potential value: “Writing is thinking, and learning to write is learning to think – as well as learning to analyse, structure, empathise, imagine, persuade, and generally to evolve a sophisticated relationship between oneself and the world. I think it’s probably a pretty valuable thing to study in school.” And what about the students who do study it? Do they see value in the subject? Well, you might start by reading this eloquent analysis from one Creative Writing student.

Where will I be in five years time? Teaching a seminar on structure to the snails in my garden? I joke of course – but I don’t really joke because that’s what the government says with this decision: they see my profession as a joke, they will not seriously support its growth. The humanities are being demolished. We’ve already fought against scrapping GCSE Drama and this latest news is the next step towards a culturally dry Britain. If we don’t pick up our pens to counter this attack, we’ll be written off forever. So, I’m calling you to arms. I need your arms – your writing arms. There’s a campaign to join, your MP to write to and, of course, a hashtag to tweet repeatedly (#valueCWALevel). As Norris states in an appeal to current students, “These decisions are political; engage with them like arguments someone is making about your future, not inevitable realities.” It’s time to engage. It’s time to write.

Poppy Corbett is a playwright and Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Petition to save the Creative Writing A-Level is at Change.org.


Poppy Corbett is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine