Some notes on New Horizons for UK Film

Following on from the DCMS policy review for British film published in January 2012 (see here), the BFI has published its consultation document – New Horizons for UK Film – on the future development of education, audiences, filmmaking, and film heritage. The document can be accessed here.

New Horizons is focussed on three ‘strategic priorities:’

  • Expanding education opportunities and boosting audience choice across the UK
  • Supporting the future success of British film
  • Unlocking film heritage for everyone in the UK to enjoy

Associated with each of these priorities are a series of proposals about what the BFI is intending to do over the next five years in each of these areas. In today’s post I want to focus on the educational aspects of the plan.

First, the importance of moving image education is asserted as a first principle – which is exactly what the BFI should be doing:

Education is a key part of the foundation of a vibrant film culture and successful film industry.

Now, I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this statement, but it is indicative of a particular attitude that education serves industry and not the individual. This is the first problem with the future plan: it is not clear what the anyone is supposed to get from moving image education. The value of film culture as expressed in New Horizons exists solely in relation to the economy. But when choosing a path through education students at every level base their choices on what will deliver the maximum value to themselves based on their own personal goals and interests. They do not base their decision-making on their relationship to some abstract concept like ‘the economy,’ ‘national identity,’ or ‘film culture.’ Film and media education is no different, but New Horizons does not make any argument as to why someone should choose to study film. This is a document promising results to politicians, but it doesn’t have anything to say to anyone who might actually participate in any of the proposed programmes.

Now clearly this is an unfair criticism of a document that is obviously intended for a particular audience; but making the case for media education to politicians will count for nothing if the BFI cannot emphasise the value to the individual in terms of what such an education will add to their life (e.g. employability, intellectual stimulation, pleasure, etc). The BFI is often unfairly criticised for being too focussed on industry, but here the complaint is justified.

A part of the problem is that ‘education’ is not defined in relation to film. For example, the BFI states that

Our aspiration is that film is part of the education of every young person in the UK.

But what does ‘part of the education’ mean? Does it mean using films in the classroom as a teaching resource or does it mean the study of film in a sense that those working within film studies would understand? These are two very different things. The goal of the BFI is

to create a unified (watching, making and understanding) new education offer for all 5-19 year-olds, aimed especially at schools and colleges.

Sounds good, but are we going to teach five-year old children to make films? Are we going to teach continuity editing as part of the reception class? No, of course, we aren’t; but I would like someone to explain to me exactly what it is a five-year old is to be expected to learn about the cinema. The plan makes reference to (but does not cite) research demonstrating

that children who regularly go to the cinema are three times more likely to attend more frequently as adults. Regular visits help to develop a lifelong relationship with film, growing the next generation of audiences and filmmakers, instilling a love of cinema-going. We will invest heavily so all young people can increase their appetite for a broad range of film.

There is no arguing with that, and I think the BFI’s plans sound very good if you start at the age of 14 or 15. It’s about that age that you start to make decisions about the types of music, literature, films, and so on that you like as you develop you own tastes, and exposure to new cinematic experiences at this critical stage will have a lasting effect. But what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ to a five-year old?  Actually, what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ for anyone? My rental list at Love Film is as long as my arm (and I’m a big guy), but I couldn’t say whether the titles I have selected represent a ‘broad range.’ I’m the sort of person who spends his time drawing graphs of the editing patterns in slasher films, so what chance do primary school teachers have?

There is a tendency in this document for ‘film education’ to be equated with ‘skills and training’ (even though the proposals under the second strategic priority are primarily concerned with the latter), with no reference to academic film studies. One of the reasons for the distinction between the BFI and the UK Film Council was that the former had responsibility for film culture and film studies while the latter was industry-facing with responsibility for skills and training. Merging the two organisations also appears to have collapsed the distinction between education and training at the expense of the former. You can’t possibly disagree with investment in the training and development of the next generation of filmmakers in the UK, but is the case for film studies being made within the BFI?

The BFI states that it will

advocate the value of film education …

Good – assuming the BFI knows what ‘film education’ is. Again, we might ask to whom are the BFI advocating the value of film education? Based on this document the focus is clearly directed towards policymakers with no consideration given to making the argument to the public.

The low status of film and media studies in the UK is clear evidence that the BFI and other media organisations are failing to reach either audience. Certainly, promoting the value of film education to a Conservative Department of Education is a challenging prospect, especially when the Secretary of State for Education thinks that Latin is a vital addition to the primary school curriculum in the 21st century (as opposed to Mandarin or Cantonese because it’s those pesky Romans that are soon to become the dominant economic power and not the Chinese – oh no, wait, that’s not right).

Film studies and media studies are considered to be ‘soft subjects,’ and a report for the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange (here) found that leading universities in the UK do not admit students with qualifications in these subjects at A-level even though they teach degree programmes in these subjects. This suggests a lack of faith in the standards of education at GCSE and A-level in non-traditional subjects rather than an aversion to the subjects themselves. The reason traditional subjects are accepted by universities with fewer problems is that they have been around longer and admission tutors know what to expect from teachers who are part of a clearly defined lineage in providing instruction in those areas. A maths teacher at a school is the next in a long line of maths teachers working within a well understood field that every admissions tutor has direct and personal experience (because everybody has to do maths). In contrast, film and media studies have only been a part of the school curriculum in the UK since the early 1990s and have only really become popular in the past decade; many of the teachers delivering these subjects have come from other areas (mainly English) and will have little specific training in film or media; and university admissions tutors are unlikely to have direct knowledge of the subjects. The problem lies not in the subjects themselves, but in the quality of delivery and in the understanding of university admissions tutors. The Policy Exchange report failed to notice this aspect – but the BFI does recognise the problem and has made a proposal to specifically deal with the issue:

We will increase the number of film education specialists including teachers so they can work closely with young people to develop an appreciation of film culture and their creative talent.

Now this really is awesome. It needs to be accompanied by educating government and universities about film and media subjects, but you can’t go wrong by doing the opposite of whatever Michael Gove says.

David Buckingham defended media studies in the Guardian in 2009 (see here), but noted the problematic nature in defining the subject that also features in New Horizons:

On the one hand, it is chided for being not vocational enough: …yet on the other, it is condemned for not being academic enough.

If the BFI is going to advocate the importance of film education then it needs to decide what it means by ‘film education.’ You can find my definition of film studies here.

The BFI’s future plan is part of a consultation process in which the views of interested parties are invited. Again, this is a good thing and there is much here that is useful and sensible. I don’t disagree with anything in New Horizons. It all sounds very good. I bet there’s another plan in 2017 that says exactly the same things.

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About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on May 17, 2012, in British Cinema, Film Policy, Film Studies, Media Studies, Teaching film studies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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