For example, unless teachers speak up for, and develop, sound education practice in writing, it is likely that the current generation of pupils will grow up hating it.
Pupils may never realise how writing can help them think, grow and relate. They may be so alienated by the experience of writing that they will never own the process. They may think of writing only as a product - the exclusive domain of the examiner and the published writer. In fact, of course, writing belongs to us all.
Independent schools have always known that their parents value free-thinking as well as discipline, and will willingly pay for an arts education in which their children can grow. Their children will be the creative leaders of tomorrow: it is their rightful inheritance, after all. They expect to work to live, rather than merely live to work. And they expect to play, because that is where they can think for themselves, question things and create them, rather than just buy them off the shelf, shrink-wrapped and ready-made, plausibly packed with someone else’s commercial imperative.
Many state school parents, on the other hand, can only look on enviously as their children are strait-jacketed by tests and equipped to be followers and consumers – barking at print and writing by numbers - despite an HMCI who says she wants to change all that:
" ...how do we make sure our efforts are directed at giving young people a knowledge-rich education that sets them up to succeed, as opposed to hunting for performance table prizes and stickers? ... For too long, the curriculum – the thing that should lie at the heart of educational thinking – has come second to the pressures of accountability and performance tables."
From speech at ASCL conference, 10 March 2018, by Ofsted's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman
Less than expected progress so far, Amanda!
The testing system now distorts learning so much that pupils’ experience of writing is at odds with writers’ practice. A gulf has opened between real writing and school writing: there is meaningful personal writing for thinking, learning and being. And then there is writing for test success.
And don’t just take my word – or Geoff’s – for it. The full report of ‘Teachers as Writers’, an Arts Council and university sponsored research project 2015-2017, makes the same point.
A published writer observes: ‘there’s an increasing divide between curriculum writing and what I would call real writing.’ (p105)
And the report concludes:
‘Their (writers’) voices illuminate the recursive nature of the writing process, where generating ideas, evaluating, and drafting are reciprocally interrelated... This is in contrast to children’s experiences of the writing process in school which is frequently routinised as a linear, chronological process of plan, draft, revise and edit.’ (p112)
This is not a quick-fix. It takes time and trust before the full benefits can be felt – before teachers can re-orient themselves and create a writing culture in their schools.
The first stage is to establish that we are all writers. We all treasure words and memories and dreams; we all have stories to tell and distinctive voices to tell them in. We learn from writing, refining, reflecting and reading aloud, and from attending respectfully to each other’s attempts to share and shape thoughts and feelings. It a conversation that is never over, and the effort to be honest is as important as it is to learn helpful conventions. But our writing will never flourish if we speak in borrowed tongues or respond only to external demands.
Writing is only partly about design and craft, but it is more about being – and holding conversations with other beings. This distinction matters because it is about understanding who we are and where we might go. Whether separately or together, this will have more to do with thoughtfulness, honesty and creativity than with learning rigid conventions by rote, ticking boxes, or regurgitating fronted adverbials like performing seals.
Of course, many will still tut, scoff and bicker in their grammar fortresses. But for those who agree with Geoff Barton and who want to do something positive and reclaim the curriculum, why not join an NWP writing group? You need no-one’s permission but your own - anyone can become part of the conversation. And it’s free.
One NWP group leader with six years’ experience, speaks for many when she writes in 2018: ‘There is a joy and an ease in our meeting and writing as a group now which has created its own momentum.’
Forgive the pun, but the future is literally in our own hands.
NWP outreach director
'Reclaiming the Curriculum' is now published by Crown House Publishing. It contains a chapter - 'Reclaiming Writing' - by NWP teachers Emily Rowe, Jeni Smith and Simon Wrigley.