Thursday, 22 January 2009

Interview with author Terry Bolas about his new book Screen education: from film appreciation to media studies

How did you come to write Screen education: from film appreciation to media studies?
I had been very involved in the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT) in the 1960s when serious consideration of film and television took place only at the margins of educational establishments. Yet by the start of the 21st Century the study of the media in all their variety was everywhere. It was such a startling denouement that I was intrigued and determined to investigate. What surprised me was that no-one had yet taken up the challenge. For the many film and media studies graduates seeking doctorates, it was research that offered tremendous scope. I did subsequently come across other researchers looking into related areas like aspects of the film society movement or local film and cinema history. Perhaps it was simply that media teaching was now such an integral part of institutions that its graduates had no more curiosity about its provenance than an English or History graduate would have had about the institutional establishment of their respective studies.

Why does your account of the history start so early in the 20th Century?
The momentum of the movement picked up greatly in the 1970s and most of the brief introductory historical accounts that do exist tend to make only the scantest reference to preceding decades. But the huge investment of energy that took place in the 1970s was only possible because of the structures created by what had gone before. I was aware of this because I had known - and in some cases worked with - those who had been pioneers in the 1930s and 1940s. Subsequently much of the momentum in the 1950s had come from the ‘emergency trained’ teachers who had attended the one-year courses for ex-service personnel in the immediate post war period. They continued to play important roles as volunteers in the movement when I first became involved. They established the Society of Film Teachers (SFT), which subsequently became SEFT. Fortunately there is surviving and accessible evidence of their involvement to be found in the publications of the period: Film Teacher, The Film Teacher’s Handbook, Screen Education, Screen Education Yearbook.

What were your sources?
When I first proposed my project I had worked on the assumption that the two key organisations, the Education Department of the British Film Institute (BFI) and SEFT would have left substantial archives. Unfortunately this was not so. There were partial archives which were now being stored and maintained with proper recognition of their importance. But the current host archiving bodies had only been in a position to receive the material passed to them; they had had no control over what constituted the incoming documentation. I was particularly disappointed that the SFT/SEFT records from the 1950s and 1960s had disappeared, since I had acted as custodian of these documents when I was the Honorary Secretary of SEFT up till 1967. For me the process of research was rather different from that encountered by most researchers. Since so much of my enquiry depended on personal recollection I found myself interviewing people whom I had known or worked with some thirty five years ago. The response of my interviewees was a very positive one, since many were aware of the key period in which they had been involved and understandably thought having an account of it was a good idea. Many were prepared to share with me not only their recollections but their personal media teaching archives.

Apart from your involvement with SEFT you worked in the Education Department of the British Film Institute in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What are your recollections of that period?
The key figure at that time was Paddy Whannel who headed the Department. Like several of the SEFT activists, he had been trained as a teacher in the immediate post war period. While encouraging the members of his staff to develop their specialist areas of film criticism, he was committed to finding ways of introducing film and television study into schools. When he and Stuart Hall produced their ground-breaking book The Popular Arts, in order to give credibility to their enterprise, the dust jacket emphasised that each author had been a teacher in secondary modern schools. Unfortunately BFI Governors demonstrated more concern at Whannel’s drive for intellectual rigour among his colleagues than to his commitment to curriculum development in schools.

Why did you leave the BFI and return to teaching?
It is important that those whose careers have been consequent on their earning degrees in film or media to be aware there was no such career structure for teachers or lecturers until film and media studies began to be established in higher education in the late 1970s. For most of us ‘screen education’ was a phase we went through before returning to a more conventional career path in order to achieve promotion in teaching in school teaching or further education. Subsequently, once in post in a school, I always endeavoured to find ways to introduce aspects of film and media study into the curriculum.

How do you view the current situation around the delivery of media education?
It is curious, to say the least, that there was such a long gap of almost twenty years after SEFT disappeared before any comparable subject association was created for film and media teachers in schools, with the setting up of the Media Education Association in 2006. Of course there had long been an organisation for those teaching in higher education: Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA). This body had responded to the rapid and widespread expansion of media and associated subjects in the universities. The situation in schools was different. Essentially the years of collaboration between the BFI and SEFT had been the pioneer years with only limited developments in the curriculum and much teacher energy directed to establishing the credibility of media education. However, once there was scope within the secondary schools for students to sit public examinations in film and media, the focus for teachers became their own institutions. Their priorities were now set by Examining Boards. Government has subsequently thrown in a further complication by stressing the importance of ‘media literacy’ and giving responsibility for its implementation to a national regulatory body: Ofcom. In 1964 there was established the first course on which students might train and qualify as a teacher of Film and Television Studies; in 2009 there is now no sLinkimilar provision for would-be media teachers. Consequently the teaching in schools of examination subjects in film and media is delivered by those who are usually drafted in from other disciplines.

Screen education: from film appreciation to media studies by Terry Bolas,
ISBN 9781841502373 is available now, visit:,id=4630/

for further information and to buy your copy.

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