Educators as unlikely cinema pioneers

Film’s early potential was recognised by educationalists while still frowned on by respectable society, says Rick Instrell

A still from John Grierson's documentary ' Night Mail'. Picture: BFI
A still from John Grierson's documentary ' Night Mail'. Picture: BFI

The Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) is currently involved in discussions over the future of Scottish film education. As well as looking forward, I think that there may also be lessons from the past. Some of the history of film education is covered in a fascinating book – The Cinema and Cinema-Going in Scotland: 1896–1950 – by Trevor Griffiths of University of Edinburgh, as well as in The Early Cinema in Scotland research project at the University of Glasgow.

After the first picture shows in 1896, cinema-going quickly became a major form of entertainment leading to concerns over the influence of cinema on the young. In 1914 this prompted some Glasgow exhibitors to show social responsibility by holding matinees of educational films and issuing synopses for teachers. In contrast, a 1915 proposal by Eastwood School Board to award cinema tickets for perfect attendance was frowned on by the schools inspectorate. In 1916 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland expressed its concerns that film might lead children into crime and a year later a Hawick minister proclaimed cinema as “one of the Devil’s most blatant instruments for the destruction of all that was pure and holy”.

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Others recognised cinema’s morale-boosting role in a time of war. Edinburgh’s Chief Constable Roderick Ross saw wartime disruption of family life as the main influence on juvenile behaviour and declared his approval of film, as it reduced drunkenness and was “educative, morally wholesome and bright entertainment”.

Leading lights in Glasgow’s education department, Charles Cleland and RM Allardyce, joined the protectionist lobby, campaigning for film censorship in the 1920s. Despite this, they became key players in early film education and in 1931 formed the Scottish Educational Cinema Society in Glasgow. Glasgow Education Authority also conducted research which appeared to show the beneficial effects of educational film on pupils’ retention.

The Glasgow society soon merged with its Edinburgh counterpart (set up by Edinburgh’s director of education JB Frizzell) to become the Scottish Educational Film Association (SEFA) in 1935. SEFA aimed to persuade people of the utility of specially produced educational films. Scottish documentary maker John Grierson supported SEFA’s aims by editing Empire Marketing Board footage to produce films on geographical topics. SEFA also produced its own films, and examples such as Canals in Scotland can be viewed on the Scottish Screen Archive website.

Allardyce was the driving force behind the setting up of the Scottish Film Council (SFC) in 1934 as a regional but autonomous branch of the recently formed British Film Institute (BFI). The emergence of SEFA and SFC was felt to put Scotland in the vanguard educationally and by 1939 SEFA had 5000 members. Frizzell believed that film appreciation would eventually be taught in schools and, in 1955, SEFA and the Federation of Film Societies promoted film study in after-school film societies at George Watson’s, Loretto, Boroughmuir and Inverness Secondary.

In 1960 an SFC conference, Film and Television Study at School, called for education authorities to introduce film and television education. The conference was chaired by Frizzell and, as well as speakers from Scotland, delegates heard from a London-based Scot, Paddy Whannel. Pitlochry-born Whannel had left school at 14 to become a projectionist at the town’s Royal Theatre. After the Second World War he taught in London schools and was appointed BFI education officer in 1957. This conference marked a turning point in the conception of film education. The old guard believed in educating through educational film and in teaching against commercial film. They were about to give way to a new guard who believed that one of the best ways to engage learners was to teach through, rather than against, popular culture. This was the one of the main arguments of the influential 1964 book The Popular Arts by Paddy Whannel and Stuart Hall.

In 1961 SEFA published a survey of the viewing tastes of more than 5000 Edinburgh adolescents. One surprising result was that 24% of males aged 14 to 18 preferred French and Italian films to British or US films. This result was explained by the fact that the most popular female star amongst boys was Brigitte Bardot. The Devil was apparently still in business…

Today, the Scottish curriculum provides ample opportunities for exploiting the cultural, creative and critical potential of film-based learning. But, alas, the provision of such motivating learning experiences is still denied to many of our children.

As we have seen, the support of directors of education was important in the early years of Scottish film education. It was also crucial more recently in Scottish Screen’s Moving Image Education initiative from 2004-2008 in which Angus Council played a central role. The then director of education Jim Anderson was a powerful advocate of the motivational power of film education.

So the main lesson I would draw from history is that directors of education can be key drivers of change. Perhaps it is time for the Association of Directors in Scotland (ADES) to live up to their motto, “Leaders Advancing Learning”. Is it too much to ask that they put their collective muscle behind film and media education and make its motivational and creative potential available to all?

• Rick Instrell is a member of the management committee of the Association for Media Education in Scotland