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08 August 1997

The Real Scandal

Jennie Bristow takes issue with a 'non-nude photo' scandal

Picture the scene. A 44 year old man takes a picture of a 24 year old woman sitting the wrong way round on a chair. This is part of his work for a City and Guilds Professional Photography course at a local Further Education college. A 30 year old man gatecrashes the class one night, sees what is going on and complains to the college management. Police search the homes of the course lecturer, 46 year old Dennis Dunning, and the model. The college suspends the lecturer, who subsequently resigns, and shuts down the photography course, with the students only weeks away from their examinations. On 12 August, the story appears in the national press.

It may be 'silly season' for the press, but while there is plenty to ridicule in this story the chain of events here is important. Putting aside whatever injustices have been done to the lecturer, his students and the model in question, the prudery and censorship involved in this case is indicative of something more. Attempts at creativity are increasingly derided as minimising 'offensiveness' becomes the order of the day. Adults are treated as children, and lecturers as babysitters. You can say what you like, provided you say nothing. And that's why the students at Stockton and Billingham College of Further Education, Teeside, are complaining.

It is hardly surprising that the students do not know what they did wrong here. Julie Clayton, who modelled for the controversial pose (a rather poor imitation of a pose made famous by Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the heart of the Profumo affair in the 1960s), was herself an art student at the college. She was 24 years old - hardly a minor. Furthermore, she claims that she was not nude in this and a few other poses, although the photographs give the suggestion that she was.

When you consider that art classes since the beginning of time have involved women posing nude (it used to be called 'Life Drawing'), there do not seem to be many grounds for complaint here. Everyone in the class was a mature student, and well over the age of consent. The photographs were neither original nor shocking: as Clayton rightly pointed out to the Daily Telegraph, 'similar photographs can be seen every day in newspapers, magazines and on advertising hoardings' (12 August). Nor were the photographs intended for public consumption: it is only as a result of the press coverage provoked by the college's actions that anybody outside the Stockton course came to be aware of their existence. So why the over-reaction?

Clearly, what is at issue here is not the photographs themselves, but the desire for a Further Education (FE) college to promote a 'decent', non-controversial image at any cost. In this context, any attempt at a bit of original or risqu thinking is clamped down on.

The 'Keeler pose controversy' comes at a time when the primary raison d' tre of the FE sector seems to be getting in more students and more funding, through offering courses in anything and everything to students ranging from under 16s to over 85s. Having spent may years recruiting mature students, FE colleges now have their eyes on the younger sector of the market, running weekend classes for kids, enticing post-16s away from school and others away from the dole. Practising a policy of maximum income and minimum expenditure seems to be the only way FE colleges can see their way to surviving, investing in the prospectus while cutting back on everything else.

But this kind of strategy has consequences. The first is, obviously, that there are a lot of students being ripped off, through enrolling on ill-thought out courses aimed at getting the funding and the qualifications through without any thought given to the content. The students whose City and Guilds course has been cut short may moan about stifled creativity, but nobody is motivated to run this course as a means to encourage creativity. It is just a way of getting students through the college, and if the 'creativity' expressed by members of the course risks marring the college's image, there is every rationale for the college to put a stop to it. Image and money is everything: the only people who even think of developing talent or creativity in the FE sector are the students.

More importantly, the emphasis on recruiting both younger and older students to the local FE college means that the perceived role of lecturers changes. Previously, FE colleges were predominantly for adults, and even over-16s in FE were considered to be adults. Now, in line with the greater pastoral responsibility university lecturers are seen to have for their over-18 students, lecturers in FE are perceived in a similar position to school teachers. In the institutional relationship between student and lecturer, even the most mature mature student is perceived as a child, for whom the lecturer has responsibility.

The recent events at Stockton and Billingham college illustrate this point well. Police raids on the homes of Dunning and Clayton gave an air of a paedophilia scare to the case - even though all the people involved were old enough to have kids of their own. Shutting the course down was done because of the irresponsible image the college might have earned - especially to parents worrying about where to send their offspring for their post-16 qualifications. If Dunning can be seen to have done anything wrong, it can only be that he believed his students to be adult enough to get on with their work, rather than taking on his 'responsibility' to keep things fully-clothed and tame.

But the fact remains, this is an issue of freedom of speech, restricted in the most extreme ways. When all the forces at work in FE push the management towards preserving their public image, conservatism and restriction, the students at Stockton and Billingham may have a tough fight ahead of them. Good luck to them, I say. Their photos may not be worth looking at twice, but anyone committed to challenging censorship will argue that they should be able to take them.

For another example of free speech under threat in further and higher education, look out for Free Speech Branded by Jennie Bristow in the forthcoming issue of LM.

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