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Creative Writing Under Threat

Creative Writing A Level is one of many courses under threat from Ofqual’s view – published on March 26 – that “we do not at this stage have confidence that content can be developed that will meet our principles.” An aggressive deadline of April 7 means that teachers, subject experts and exam boards have precious little time to put forward the case for the defence.

Yet big changes like this require scrutiny and in the case of Creative Writing it is far from clear that Ofqual’s concerns about content, demand and distinction stack up:

(1) The Creative Writing A Level is a very new course – it is not yet two years old. This means that the first A2 cohort has not yet sat its final exams. Where Ofqual’s concerns about subject content come from is therefore a mystery. These can hardly be concerns about falling standards: the course is so new it has not yet had a chance to set standards from which it can fall.

(2) That A Level Creative Writing was developed and approved in the first place is largely a reflection of its good health in university English departments. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that in the 2013/14 academic year, 5,145 full-time students and 1,845 part-time students studied some form of creative writing (“imaginative writing” in HESA’s classification). These figures do not even take into account joint honours students, or students opting for creative writing modules.

(3) Understandably, one of Ofqual’s key requirements is that courses must be distinct from others. Here again, the HE sector seems at odds with Ofqual’s view. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) exists to monitor and advise on HE standards and their latest benchmark statement for English recognises Creative Writing as one of three distinct strands of study (the other two being English Literature and English Language). The QAA’s view is therefore that the purpose, aims, and outcomes of creative writing are distinct from those of English Literature and Language. In fact, the QAA plans to publish a benchmark statement dedicated solely to Creative Writing.

Not only, then, is Creative Writing a popular and viable way of “doing” English, it is increasingly recognized by subject experts and education professionals as a distinct discipline within a broader subject area. Writing a poem and writing about a poem are related but different skills, so providing A Level students with a firm grounding in creative writing can therefore only be a good thing – at least from the point of view of HE providers looking to field the strongest, best prepared candidates.

Ofqual needs to justify why its view of Creative Writing is so much at odds with that of both the QAA and the universities, and to explain why it is willing to cut a course that has not even been given a chance to prove itself.

The CBI has raised concerns about levels of functional literacy and basic communication skills amongst young people – exactly the skills developed by creative writing. Yet unfortunately, it may be that Creative Writing has fallen foul of the ‘academic rigour’ discourse – a discourse that too often treats “creative” as synonymous with “soft” or “non-academic”.

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