The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Film, TV and Education in WA

Brian Shoesmith

The relationship between film and television and education has always been problematic because of the aura of entertainment associated with the audio-visual media. Calls for the inclusion of film and television in the curriculum have usually emanated from enthusiasts while the educational establishment remained cautious. Basically the tensions arise from an opposing of views as to the role of the media in education: whether they are tools that facilitate learning, or whether they are subjects of study in their own right. It is this opposition that has characterised educational thinking about the media in Western Australia. Moreover, these tensions have existed ever since film became a significant form of communication and entertainment in the 1920s.

In this brief survey I will trace the major characteristics of each position in respect to Western Australian education. However, before doing this it must always be remembered that the media have always played a significant role in linking Western Australia to the rest of the world. That is, an otherwise isolated English speaking segment of the world has, through the modern audio-visual media, become an integral part of modern, technological culture. This applies equally in the field of education. The surge for media education in West Australian secondary schools in the 1970s is paralleled by similar developments in England, Europe and the United States.

In constructing an account of film and television in education in Western Australia we can look to an international schema of events: the pre-World War II period; the immediate post-War era; the 1960s; and the 1970s to the present.

It is difficult to ascertain at this stage whether there was any serious push towards developing a media curriculum of any form in Western Australia in the inter-war years. However, on the international scene there were several calls for education to take account of the power of film.' These calls took two forms. Film was perceived in the 1920s as possessing enormous potential for reaching the illiterate masses. Lenin's dictum ''That of all the arts film is the most important'' was taken seriously by enthusiasts in a number of countries including Australia.2 That is, film was seen as possessing a major pedagogic function that could be exploited through the production of specifically educational films and the provision of projectors in schools. Enthusiasts abounded and constructed manifestos outlining the virtues of film in education but the authorities by and large remained inconvenienced for two reasons: the costs involved, and the influence of Hollywood which, paradoxically, had initiated the desire to harness film for educational purposes, and at the same time actively worked against its introduction into the curriculum because of its overwhelming emphasis on fiction and entertainment.

A parallel development to the above was a desire to teach about film, to make children discriminating viewers of film, in short to innoculate them against the power of Hollywood. The major expression of this development in the inter-war years was the Payne Fund Studies which researched all aspects of the relationship between film and education in a thorough manner in the mid-1930s.3 It is interesting to note that such important research as the Payne Fund Studies was largely ignored until recent times signifying clearly the problematic relationship of media and education. I have discussed these issues here because I want to suggest that these matters, whether film should be used in education, and whether there should be education about films, were probably on the West Australian educational agenda. They were certainly an issue in Australia generally as the evidence to the 1927 Royal Commission on the Cinema demonstrates.4 Quite obviously more research needs to be done in this area for a clearer understanding to emerge.

Matters in the immediate post-war era are much easier to grasp. Film production for educational purposes began in Perth in 1944. By 1946 a production unit was established in war-time huts at the foot of William Street. In 1948 the unit became a fully-fledged branch of the West Australian Education Department and later moved to its Vincent Street quarters where it remains to this day. The AV Branch, as it is always called despite some name changes, is a pivotal institution in the formation of a systematic approach to education in and through the media in Western Australia. Moreover, the founder Norm Uren is a crucial figure in these developments because he was one of the enthusiasts for film who translated his enthusiasm into concrete results.

Initially established as a production unit the AV Branch quickly acquired other functions. His own products were well received and created a demand for films in the schools which had the Branch extend its function to distribution. At the same time its own limited resources could not possibly meet the demand for educational and documentary films in the schools. It therefore became a purchasing agent for films produced interstate and overseas by its counterparts and the commercial educational film producers. In addition the adult education movement in Western Australia used film extensively. In 1961 this collection became the State Film Centre and is now part of the State Library Board, with its headquarters in the Alexander Library Building, located in the new Perth Cultural Centre.

Another equally important development associated with the AV Branch was the formation of the State Film Archives, which is the only regional film archive in Australia, in 1969. The SFA began as an historical film sub-committee of the State Film Centre while both remained as sections of the AV Branch. However, in 1979 it was established as a separate identity with quarters in James Street. In 1985 it too moved to the Alexander Library Building. The SFA constitutes a major resource in charting the conditions of the formation of a regional film culture and its extensive holdings remain largely unresearched.

The development at the institutional level in Western Australia was paralleled by developments in the schools. Film gradually became established as an educational tool. By the 1960s virtually all schools had 16 mm projectors, usually purchased from funds raised by the Parents and Citizens Associations. Because of import restrictions the school market was serviced by Australian manufacturers. The Victor, Pyrox and Cinevox were all popular brands in use in schools. The ubiquitous Bell and Howell began its domination of the school market in the 1960s. In response to the needs of the general community, the Branch built up a collection of films known initally as the Adult Library.

By the 1960s the AV Branch and film in education were both firmly established. The introduction of television extended the means of education through audio-visual means. Film had eased television's acceptance as a means of education. The ABC began its educational broadcasting almost immediately television was introduced following on from its experiences and tradition established in radio.5 Again schools purchased the television sets necessary to receive the programmes through the injection of Parents and Citizens funds. By the end of the 1960s virtually all schools with access to television broadcasts had television receivers. An unforseen consequence of this development was a widespread movement that questioned the place of television in instruction which reflected the wider societal questioning of the role of television in children's lives. This development had two consequences: firstly, there was a move to discount the value of television in teaching; and secondly, in contra-distinction to the first, there was a recognition that if television was such a powerful social force then educators had better educate both themselves and children in the area. That is, the movement against television precipitated a new drive towards re-establishing teaching about the media in the curriculum. In the 1960s John Bottomley was a strong advocate of teaching about film and television as distinct from teaching through film and television in the schools. His enthusiasm laid the foundations for the strong media studies movement that emerged in West Australian schools in the 1970s.6 It is also important to point out that the desire to teach about film and television in schools was related to film education initiatives at the Adult Education Board and the development of a strong film society movement in Western Australia which is discussed elsewhere in this dossier.

In the early 1970s the AV Branch renamed its headquarters the Centre for Educational Technology signifying a much narrower and more specific function in Educational terms. It had lost most of its distribution functions but retained its production function. Moreover, as electronic equipment became more accessible and media courses developed in schools it also acquired a major evaluative function. Its officers tested and reviewed new items of equipment for the schools for two reasons. Firstly, most teachers had little experience in the selection of media equipment which the Parents and Citizens Associations were again being asked to invest their funds in and the Branch's evaluations eased this problem. Secondly, there was a bewildering array of brands available and the problems of servicing such a diversity of equipment demanded some form of standardisation in the schools. Again evaluations helped this process. But in reality the centre of gravity in media education had shifted from the activities of the AV Branch to the schools.

The introduction of the Achievement Certificate into West Australian schools in 1970 provided the opportunity for enthusiasts to translate their ideas on media education into practice. The Achievement Certificate, now being phased out, provided for students to study six core units plus options. A number of individual schools proposed media related options between 1970 and 1973 which became consolidated into a general secondary lower school Media Studies option in 1974. The key figure in this development was Barrie McMahon, now a Senior Education Officer in Media Education in the Curriculum Branch of the WA Education Department. Moreover, the core English curriculum included one media unit in the Year 10 syllabus.

Media Studies as a school subject had its origins generally in the intellectual questioning of established doctrines that characterised the late 1960s and early 1970s, which translated itself into a set of specific objections to the then current practice of English teaching which remained literary in its orientation. To many teachers the literary curriculum appeared irrelevant to children immersed in television. In addition a number of teachers returned from overseas or entered the West Australian teaching profession for the first time, and brought with them ideas about the need to teach about film and television. McMahon recognised the ferment and became a forceful advocate for Media Studies in the schools. Supported by the Department hierarchy he established a pattern of in-service teaching that ensured Western Australia leadership in the field in Australia, and with the people who emerged from this in-service work he constructed a syllabus that generated interest throughout Australia. By the beginning of the 1980s W.A. had the most extensive media education programme in Australia. The syllabus extended into the upper Secondary School and the future looked extremely bright. In some respects the recent reforms to secondary education have strengthened the position of Media Studies. The McGaw Report7 in particular opened up the field. Today Media Studies at the upper level is taught in over eighty secondary schools and is studied by more than twelve hundred pupils. The influence of the Beazley Committee is less clear, but it looks as though Media Studies as a separate option has little chance of survival given the new organisation of the time-table and syllabus in West Australian schools. Nevertheless the gains in the field of media education in one decade have been enormous and Western Australia remains a leader in this field.

The developments in the secondary field are paralleled by developments in the tertiary sector. A programme of film and television education was begun in the School of English at the West Australian Institute of Technology in 1972. It quickly became one of the most popular courses at WAIT and entry is strictly limited by quota. Its graduates have entered the media at a number of levels throughout Australia. A Media~Studies component of a Communications Studies Programme was begun at the then West Australian Secondary Teachers College in 1975 to meet the need for trained media teachers in the schools. After the College's amalgamation in 1985, as part of the Western Australian College of Advanced Education, a separate Media Studies major was instituted within the Department of Communication Education to meet the continuing need for Media Studies teachers. Moreover, the Western Australian College is developing further programmes in Media Studies. In 1975 Murdoch University also began offering units in media and film. The School of Human Communication has become an Australian centre for theoretical studies in media and communications. Of the four tertiary institutions in W.A., only the more traditional University of Western Australia has resisted entering the field in a formal way. At the T.A.F.E. level a considerable amount of film and television work is done in association with art and design and theatre studies.

From all of this it is clear that film and television are firmly entrenched at all levels of the W.A. educational establishment - the tertiary and T.A.F.E. sectors in particular. Moreover, the emphasis has increasingly become focused on the media as an object of study in their own right rather than as mere agents of learning. This shift of emphasis reflects major changes in thinking about the place of the media in our society that are not just confined to Australia, and which highlight the conceptual over the practical. However, this is not to denigrate media practices, but rather to contextualise them.

The role of the AV Branch remains crucial in the educational field. The demise of the ABC as an educational force re-emphasises the Branch's role especially in the era of satellite communication. In association with the Golden West Network, a commercial broadcaster based in Bunbury, and the four tertiary institutions the AV Branch is extending education through television to the remotest parts of Western Australia. To achieve this exacting task it has been given new state of the art production facilities at its headquarters. Its future as a provider of education through the media seems assured.

The place of media studies in the schools, in contrast, is not quite so assured. The subject remains popular with pupils in the classroom but the recent failure of the subject to gain category A status in the Tertiary Entry S list of subjects casts a shadow on itS further development. However, in comparison to the past the conceptual side of media education has made significant gains and represents a growing recognition of the role of film and television in culture. The enthusiasts who first began the process in the 1930s and 1940s would be pleased.


Jowett, Garth (1976) Film, The Democratic Art: A Social History of American Film, Boston, Little Brown & Co., pp. 75-76.

Bertrand, Ina & Colllns, Diane (1981) Government and Film in Australia, Sydney, A.F.I./Currency Press, pp. 73f.

Wartella, Ellen & Reeves, Byron (1985) 'Historical Trends in Research on Children and the Media', Journal of Communication, Spring, vol 35, 2, pp. 118-133.

Bertrand & Collins, op.cit. pp. 72-76.

Inglis, Ken (1983) This is The ABC: the Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-83, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.

I am grateful to my colleague Mrs Nadine Owen, Department of Communication Education, W.A.C.A.E., for this point.

McGaw, Barry (1984) Assessment In the Upper Secondary School in Western Australia: Report of the Ministerial Workfng Party on School Certification and Tertiary Admissions Procedures, Perth.