Reaching the Invisible Audience

By Cary Bazalgette


A strategy to introduce children to non-mainstream cinema

We have produced a resource for each stage of schooling from age 3 to age 14 – that’s three in all – and we have five more in development. They’re so successful that the National Strategies for primary and secondary education have bought copies for every local authority in England, and are promoting the training of consultants to help teachers use them properly.

There’s a peculiar resistance to considering the six-and-a-half million under-12s in our population as a distinct and separate audience category with as much entitlement to cultural experiences as anyone else. So for example the UK Film Council focuses its audience development strategy on the 18-25 demographic and there is no public sector policy for children as a film audience. In consequence, children are probably the worst served audience sector in the UK as far as non-mainstream film is concerned: in debates about film policy, they are invisible.

We have a profound ignorance in the UK about the range and quality of film production for children across the world: there is a huge range of product, obviously variable in quality but some of it excellent, that never reaches this country except as a one-off festival screening. This is due largely to the huge prejudice in this country against subtitles, especially regarding children, who no-one believes can cope with reading subtitles. The fact is that if the film engages their attention, even beginning readers will cope – as they do in the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary and any small language community which can’t support a re-voicing industry. Nevertheless, UK distributors will almost never take a chance on world cinema for children, certainly not if it’s subtitled. It is seen as hopeless to try and compete with the mainstream family film market. How can this situation be changed?

birthday-boy.jpg Birthday Boy

I believe that there is only one way that we are going to make a start on bringing non-mainstream film to child audiences and that is through the schools. Teachers are capable of recognising their responsibilities for children’s cultural development. They are prepared to take risks that most parents won’t take. However, there are some barriers here that we can’t ignore. Firstly, we have to recognise that teachers themselves don’t have much experience of non-mainstream film, and secondly, that they are nervous about the status of film in education – that it’s seen as merely a treat or a soft option, not as part of the basics.

At the BFI we are in the process of breaking through these barriers to the establishment of film as a cultural entitlement for children in school. We have developed resources for teaching about film within the context of literacy – not as you might expect, as just a way of stimulating children to write or to give them a film version of a story – but as a way of studying film in its own right and on its own terms. What we use are a range of independent short films, sourced from the UK and around the world, most of them not originally made for children, but accessible enough for a child audience as well as being rich, powerful and challenging enough to reward repeated viewing and close analysis.

We have produced a resource for each stage of schooling from age 3 to age 14 – that’s three in all – and we have five more in development. They’re so successful that the National Strategies for primary and secondary education have bought copies for every local authority in England, and are promoting the training of consultants and advisors to help teachers use them properly.

second-helpings.jpgSeconds Helping

What’s more, over 40 local authorities (nearly a third) have joined a scheme based on these resources, in which they have each created an action plan for moving image media literacy and have nominated people for intensive, advanced training from us, who will lead these action plans over the next three years. Between them these local authorities have already committed nearly three quarters of a million pounds to this initiative, and we expect another cohort of local authorities to join the scheme next year.

This initiative is completely distinct from other kinds of classroom work with film, where films (usually clips) are used to stimulate writing or topic-based discussion, or to illustrate curriculum content. These films are studied as texts, of value in their own right, and central to the lesson rather than introductory.

lucky-dip.jpgThe Lucky Dip

Feedback from consultants, advisers and heads is that this work makes an important and unique contribution to raising standards of pupil achievement. Three significant, linked findings are emerging:

1. Children can engage with film at a more sophisticated level than they can with the other kinds of text they are encountering. The print or graphic materials that children see as beginning readers are necessarily simple: they don’t make great demands on higher-level skills like inference, prediction, and recognition of genre or character types. But in relation to film, children can demonstrate these skills, often using a more extended vocabulary than expected.

2. Children are, therefore, capable of engaging with moving image material that is richer, more complex, and more challenging than what they usually tend to get. They demonstrate a greater confidence and more extended attention spans than expected, and where they do not fully understand the film on a first viewing, demand repeated viewings which lead to deeper insights. Having seen this happen, teachers instinctively feel that they should respect and build on these capabilities, by ensuring that children continue to have access to films that they might not otherwise see.

3. The learning gains seen through their work with film can then transfer to other curricular areas. Teachers report improvements in vocabulary, writing (both quality and quantity), speaking, confidence and motivation. They are consistently surprised and delighted by what children are achieving through this work. This endorses research from the USA which suggests that young children who are good at understanding television narratives go on to become good readers later on (the reverse of what is generally assumed!)

Two clear policy implications emerge from this work. Firstly, there is an urgent need for a research initiative covering at least three consortia of schools, taking these three statements as hypotheses to be tested, and to produce more robust evidence about the impact of film-based work within literacy teaching and learning for children between the ages of 3 and 14. It is at least possible that treating children’s culture in a joined-up way, and ceasing to ignore one of its most important dimensions, might be one way of cutting the numbers of children who fail to do well in school. This is a possibility that the DfES cannot afford to ignore.


Secondly, there is a need for a serious intervention to broaden the range of moving image material currently available to children. When the BFI ran a survey in 2005 to identify the ten films that all children should have seen by the age of 14 , not only did we get a surprising amount of media coverage, but almost all of it was positive.

Even The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph gave serious attention to the idea that there might be a bit of a problem about the fact that most of children’s moving image culture comes from one foreign source – the USA. The BFI has now made a commitment to setting up a world cinema DVD label for children, targeted not at parents but at Extended School settings: the 8.00 am to 6.00 pm care provision that the Government hopes all schools will be offering by 2010. At a subsidised price, and combined with training, this will not be a cheap option – but then nor are the education programmes of the National Theatre or Tate Modern. The reason for doing it would be that kids – and film – are worth it.

Cary Bazalgette is Head of Education UK Wide at the British Film Institute.