Why school film clubs are spreading across Wales

Non Stevens says cinema provides a powerful example of the impact that cultural engagement can have with disadvantaged children and young people

Opportunities to engage with film, theatre and other forms of culture broaden the horizons of young people, raise their aspirations and provide them with useful skills for the future. Research also shows that access to culture can significantly reduce the attainment gap between rich and poor children. Yet in Wales, where 32 per cent of children live in poverty, thousands are denied these experiences.

Which is why leading charities and institutions supported by, among others, actor and Ambassador for FILMCLUB Cymru, Michael Sheen and Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, who have joined forces to launch a new Children’s Cultural Poverty Forum in Wales. As Michael Sheen says:

“It’s a sad truth really, that today in Wales many, many children and young people are experiencing a great deal of difficulty in having access to a rich, cultural life, for a number of reasons. One is geographical, another is economic. Access to culture not only enables young people to engage in their culture artistically and creatively but also gives them opportunities to develop life skills.”

Working together through the new Forum, organisations including FILMCLUB Cymru, the Film Agency for Wales, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Save the Children Wales and the End Child Poverty Network Cymru aim to bring a broad range of cultural experiences and new learning opportunities to the 200,000 young people in Wales currently living in poverty.

FILMCLUB provides a powerful example of the impact that cultural engagement can have with disadvantaged children and young people. It is a charity founded by filmmaker Beeban Kidron and educationalist Lindsay Mackie to help schools set up and run free film clubs. Children aged 5-18 are encouraged to watch, discuss and review a diverse range of films from the past hundred years of cinema. Launched across Wales in May 2011 with the backing of the Welsh Government, the scheme is already having a profound impact in some of Wales’ most disadvantaged schools.  In Gaer School in Newport, for example, where 25 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals, deputy head Abi Beacon says:

“Going to the cinema is simply not an option for many of our learners. The nearest cinema is nearly 5 miles away and the cost is prohibitive for most families living on our estate. Watching a wide range of films is broadening the children’s experience not only of cinema but also of the wider world and showing them some of the things that are possible.”

The school is also using the scheme to boost literacy. To date it has submitted over 800 reviews to the FILMCLUB website, for which it received a special award at a literacy event organised by the charity earlier this year.

Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the FILMCLUB initiative is that it introduces children to ideas and issues they wouldn’t normally encounter.  The curated catalogue of classic and popular titles available for members to order free via the website from partner LOVEFILM – many accompanied by discussion guides – encompasses every genre and era of movie-making.

Children of all backgrounds are watching Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, and marvelling at the way social attitudes have changed, expressing outrage after Hotel Rwanda, discussing bullying after screenings of Lord of the Flies or Bridge to Terabithia, laughing at the Marx brothers and enjoying – often to their surprise – documentaries, foreign language and black and white films that they would never otherwise access.

In addition, a season of Welsh medium films and a blog section on the website in English and Welsh enables youngsters to explore their own cultural heritage.  Many simply enjoy coming together to share a quality film with their peers. Hannah Davies, who runs the club at Treorchy Comprehensive says:

“Thanks to FILMCLUB, many young people have viewed films that they wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to see. These films have introduced them to new ideas and given them an insight into different cultures. It’s been an excellent tool for bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds and a range of abilities to socialise with each other and share a common interest.”

Martin Sheen, the charity’s Ambassador for Wales, says the is a highly effective way of inspiring young people, particularly those who are hard to reach:

“Films are a good way of reaching children who do not easily engage with culture in other forms.  Through films they become a member of a community and talk about what they have seen.  They are not aware they are being educated, so it is particularly good for children who have found formal education hard but it stretches the academic children too.  They all have greater self esteem which is reflected in improvements in their work.”

With over 350 Welsh schools, among 7,000 in the UK as a whole, already signed up it’s clear that a scheme that makes culture available, at no cost, to young people who may otherwise be denied it can have significant educational and social benefits. As Education Minister Leighton Andrews put it at the launch of the Children’s Cultural Poverty Forum:

“I have been impressed by FILMCLUB Cymru’s efforts to close the gap between education opportunity and performance, and the way in which they engage disadvantaged pupils with new ways to communicate and learn.”

Non Stevens is the co-ordinator of FILMCLUB Cymru. For more information and to sign up for a free start-up session visit filmclub.org/blog/cymru or call 020 7288 4520.

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