Thomas Sutcliffe: Film belongs in school. Discuss

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The Independent Online

Here's a headline you can easily imagine being spun the wrong way by a hostile journalist: "Government pays for pupils to watch movies in class". After all, to the suspicious parent, the combination of a schoolroom and a feature film hints at educational exhaustion. The term has burnt down to its stub end, you think, and, all energy spent, the teacher has decided to bung on a video of Zulu rather than tackle the module on late 19th-century South African history.

Alternatively, films may figure as a dilution of the canon. Not very long ago, I experienced my own Brigadier-like spasm of what-have-we-come-to when my son revealed that he was required to write an essay on Lethal Weapon as part of his GCSE English coursework. And yet, next week, an enterprise funded in part by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and intended to encourage children to watch films in the classroom, will be rolled out nationwide – and it is, unreservedly, good news.

FilmClub, a service pioneered by the director Beeban Kidron and writer Lindsay Mackie, has already established itself as a stealthy triumph in pilot schemes in around 250 schools. The idea is straightforward. Schools interested in setting up a film club can register online with FilmClub ( www.filmclub.org) and get advice and assistance in making it happen. More crucially, they also get access to a library of films, which are sent out on DVD through the rental company LoveFilm, a key partner in the scheme.

Implementing the idea wasn't quite as easy. Films are free to schools registered with FilmClub, so deals had to be done on licensing and funding. As well as underwriting the costs of the scheme, FilmClub also arranges school visits by actors, directors and technicians, and encourages children to post their own reviews of films on the FilmClub website. It also offers suggestions of themed seasons for school audiences, drawing on films that have suitable licences for the respective age groups. Screenings – just in case anyone still thinks the scare headline might be applicable – take place after lessons have finished or during lunch breaks.

One of the keys to the success of the scheme so far is that pleasure, rather than instruction, has been the priority. FilmClub has a notion of quality, but it doesn't impose it, and its belief that children will develop a more adventurous taste as they watch has already been borne out. The website will soon acquire a new section called The Black and White Club, to accommodate those members whose engrained suspicion of monochrome has been eroded by contact with the kind of films you would never find in Blockbuster. And whether you think that Lethal Weapon should be part of the English curriculum or not, there's little doubt that this is an expansion of literacy – understanding that dead people in funny clothes may have as much, or even more to say to you than the celebrities you see in Hello! magazine.

Collective watching is critical, too – in all senses of that word. Many children say that they prefer to watch films with their peers because at home they are exposed to their siblings' mockery. At school, their reactions to a film, and the discussions that follow, have a chance to bloom. And the stop-start rhythm of much domestic viewing is replaced by something far more focused. DVDs may make FilmClub possible, but the scheme itself restores some of the artistic authority to a film screening that DVDs have weakened. They are watched all the way through, at the pace the director has decided on. And the novelty of this lowest-common-denominator example of cultural concentration shouldn't casually be underestimated. Kidron herself says that she routinely asks pupils on school visits how many of them had watched a film from beginning to end without interruption, before joining FilmClub. She's yet to get much above 20 per cent in her own straw polls.

There are straightforwardly educational benefits to FilmClub. Teachers can get assistance on choosing films that amplify an existing theme in the curriculum, or simply address issues with which children may be having difficulty at school or at home. But what is probably best about it is the way that it creates a school space that is defined by eager participation rather than compulsion. The benefits don't just stay in the classroom, either. Kidron's favourite anecdote concerns a young boy she met recently who explained how it had changed his week. Every day, his mother asked him what he'd done at school, he said, and he gave a noncommittal grunt in reply. On Wednesdays she asked him what he watched at FilmClub... and they had a conversation.

It's probably not what was intended by the term Communication Studies, but it's not to be sniffed at.

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