Agitating the FE Curriculum
Invited to help plan Chesterfield College’s Level 3 Photography programme I wanted to create a course that addresses the realities of working in the photographic industry, as well as covering fundamental photographic techniques and theories in a way that encouraged creativity and helped students progress to Higher Education (HE) if they wanted to.
I have fond memories of my own photographic studies as a young adult. This formative time transported me from learning about the photographic greats and optical science to the buzz of working in a dark room with my talented mentor at the weekly Boston Standard newspaper. It paved the way to becoming a Documentary Photographer for the pioneering Bradford Heritage Recording Unit in the mid-1980’s and later, a press photographer. Now, as a qualified lecturer - who still shoots freelance - I appreciate the immensely positive impact that a balanced education had on my professional life and how well-rounded studies remain as relevant as ever.
Awarding body specifications mean that Further Education (FE) photography courses tend to focus on progressing students through the education system more than preparing them for non-academic work. While academic discourse helps our understanding and appreciation of the image and its role in society, culture and history, how many photographers are commissioned solely on the basis of their academic qualifications?
How many FE photography students, who want to work rather than enter HE, understand media law, agency representation, the daily realities of freelance or staff photography, and have the personal skills to see them through?
In my experience, many young photographers lack practical knowledge in fundamental areas such as how the photographic industry works, job costing, and working to a brief with commercial clients.
Take metadata, for example. It is essential to help protect copyright, convey licensing information, and manage digital assets; this is recognised by Skillset, a leading creative industries training provider. However, teaching about metadata isn’t required by FE awarding bodies. Neither is business practice. Despite this, when developing our latest Level 3 full-time course - which is equivalent to 3 ‘A’ levels - we decided to incorporate digital asset management as well as introductory business practices. In short, we go beyond the specifications of awarding bodies.
In today’s image rich, digitally connected society, it’s more important than ever that modern FE photographic curricula balance academic achievement, creative expression, and sound technical knowledge with the requirements of working in the photographic industry.
To rely on dated schemes of work or narrow achievement plans denies learners opportunities and may negatively affect the way in which the FE photographic sector is perceived.
Our Level 3 photography course is accredited by the University of Arts London (UAL). Their programme allows us some flexibility in content and delivery, so we can embrace both commercial and new ways of working. For instance, our students are helped as they move seamlessly between analogue and digital equipment, methods and techniques. We are fortunate to have a fully equipped, multi-format darkroom, so students can develop hybrid workflows that make for exciting imagery. Mobile phones have replaced negative carriers in enlargers, effectively creating digital negatives from which analogue prints are produced. Interest in film techniques among students has grown significantly. They love the tactile approach and, ironically, the freedom that stepping away from a computer screen brings.
Our Level 3 student intake has doubled and some of our latest applicants’ portfolios have been exceptional. At our most recent graduation, over 45% of our UAL Level 3 year one Diploma students achieved a distinction.
However, we still face challenges. “Technology poverty” is an ever present threat. There is not enough funding to provide each learner with a dedicated shooting kit that includes a range of lenses, flash equipment, accessories and individual access to editing software. Some of our learners begin the course with their own full frame DSLR kits including high-end optics, MacBook and personal Adobe software accounts. Others don’t. A few have limited home computing resources and funds to help pay for material costs. Although we make our shared pool of resources available to them (students can borrow equipment over weekends, for example), there is no denying that a reduction in education funding has limited the quantity of quality equipment. Needless to say, this affects image outcomes and the overall experience of learners.
We cannot get away from the fact that photography relies upon technology and, at times, the pace of technological change is staggering. Keeping our practical learning in line with industry practices can prove financially challenging but we’ve managed to keep growing. Where possible, we buy quality second-hand kit. Whenever we are able, we repurpose. And we almost always welcome donations of film, photographic paper and good equipment.
By agitating the curriculum, the hard work, creativity and determination of our students can shine more brightly.
Matthew Taylor divides his time between lecturing and freelance editorial photography. Previously, he has developed programmes that support new creative talent in association with the BBC, Central Vision TV, Screen West Midlands and the University of Hull. He has covered every kind of photographic diary work and continues to be published in newspapers, magazines and books.
Chesterfield College courses follow UAL Level 3 Diploma and Extended Diploma in Creative Media Production & Technology (Photography). The graded assessments are loaded towards the end of the course which prevents students that are new to photography from being at a disadvantage.
Year one, (16 years plus) covers technique, media law, decisive moment etc. Major projects include the production of a documentary style photo book themed around ‘Sense of Place’ and a portfolio project of personal interest. Previous projects have encompassed street, macro and landscape.
Year two requires that students explore business skills, visual language, audience, contextual studies and semiotics around two main projects: specialist studio and specialist location practice. Finally, they pursue a project of personal interest. Second year students are enrolled as RPS affiliated members with a route to RPS Licentiateship. The Chesterfield College RPS affiliation is fairly new but has already proved to support students’ learning.