Teacher Babe

The cinema has invaded the classroom. Media studies in the national curriculum has led to film becoming an increasingly important teaching aid in British schools. Daniel Rosenthal reports
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The Independent Online
Your starter for 10: the farmyard high jinks depicted in the film Babe can broaden primary school pupils' knowledge in which seven national curriculum subjects? Thousands of teachers who made use of the Babe study guide produced by Film Education could tell you that the pig's adventures have links with English, history, art, music, geography, technology and even PE ("Design a sheepdog trial obstacle course for your class").

During National Schools Film Week, which marked Film Education's 10th birthday earlier this month, 62,000 teaching packs were sent to schools, and about 90,000 pupils attended free preview screenings in 34 cities. It iwas the most visible demonstration yet of the increasingly significant presence of film in the nation's classrooms.

With media studies part of the national curriculum, there is a massive increase in schools' demand for film-related teaching material.

Film Education, the charity that was set up by Ian Wall, a former English teacher, in October 1986 with pounds 70,000 raised by (Chariots of Fire) producer David Puttnam, is the leading player in this burgeoning field.

Its glossy packs on classics, new releases and genres, covering Key Stage 2 to A-level, are sent free of charge to 11,500 secondary school teachers and to staff in 10,000 primary schools (43 per cent of the national total). It also produces half-hour BBC television programmes, and recently started holding teacher-training days.

The compilation of each guide begins when one of the organisation's authors, all ex-teachers or current teachers, attends a preview screening in London. Jill Poppy, who taught film and media at Hammersmith and West London College before becoming a full-time Film Education adviser earlier this year, says that her brief at a preview is totally different from that of the magazine critic she may be sitting next to.

"You're not assessing whether Braveheart or Goldeneye is a good or bad film. You have to keep the pupils in mind, so you're asking yourself, 'What could I teach a class through this film?' I want teachers to use the guide as a springboard for a wide range of topics."

Carol Craggs, who teaches English at Stevenson Junior School, Nottingham, has written primary guides on films such as Pocahontas and Free Willy 2, often using her own class as guinea pigs for her teaching ideas.

"Every exercise I devise aims to heighten pupils' awareness of the way film communicates," she says. "I'll get them to look at narrative technique in Babe, or the representation of good and evil in Danny the Champion of the World. But it must all feed into the national curriculum - otherwise teachers just will not use it."

Guides on new releases are funded by the film's distributors, with major companies such as Columbia TriStar and Twentieth Century Fox contributing to Film Education's core budget of about pounds 100,000 a year. However, mindful that their material must not be an extension of the Hollywood publicity machine, Jill Poppy and her colleagues retain complete editorial control. "There is inevitably an element of promotion," she admits. "But it is up to individual teachers whether they encourage their class to see a particular film."

The expansion of media studies means that many teachers are being required to work with film for the first time.

"Understandably, many don't know where to start," says Poppy. "But every English teacher has been trained to analyse texts, and films are simply another form of text. Film Education tries to bridge the gap between the two."

But do teachers find the guides useful? Nick Austin, head of English at St Bede's Inter-Church Comprehensive in Cambridge, calls them an "invaluable" resource. "It's very rare that you would set a class all the tasks in a particular guide," he says. "But it's fantastic that they are so current. They enable me to bring something into a lesson that my pupils are automatically interested in, because they've heard about the film outside school."

Heather Owens, head of English at Kendrick GM Girls' School in Reading, sees film studies as an extension of traditional work on literature. "You are teaching children to interpret a film, just as you teach them to interpret a book. Those skills overlap naturally.

"Film can also generate really surprising discussions. My pupils used Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein as a starting point for excellent work on the ethical implications of genetic engineering, a topic that wasn't in the Film Education pack. I'm also pleased to report that a lot of them then went away and read Mary Shelley's book" n

Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London WIP 3AA (0171 637 9932/9935).