Is there any point in pen licences?

Often, pupils work towards a pen licence in key stage 2 – but should they? Here, two teachers go head to head to argue the benefits, and limitations, of the award
3rd May 2022, 11:31am
Pen, License, Head,


Is there any point in pen licences?

In key stage 2, children work towards a very particular goal: achieving their pen licences, and swapping their pencils for pens to do their schoolwork.

It's fairly common practice across most primary schools: but should it be? Here, two teachers go head to head to argue for, and against, pen licences.

'A pen licence improves concentration and focus'

Clare Hatfield, Year 3 teacher ​and health and wellbeing lead, says:

When I first started teaching Year 3, it was the students themselves who asked me if they would work towards having a pen licence. Now, nine years later, it's something I introduce with every class.

At the start of the academic year, we have a class discussion in which we decide the criteria for achieving a pen licence. The targets set include neat and easily readable handwriting in all books, words sat on the line with tall and hanging tail letters appropriately placed, consistent finger spaces and demonstrating focus in written tasks.

All of the pupils are keen to achieve one: and often say that it makes them want to practice their handwriting more, and helps them to focus and take more time with their writing.

I've got a few pupils who achieved them already, who told me that they felt "proud of themselves" and "enjoyed writing more with a pen".

It's a contentious issue, and some say that it's demotivating for children who struggle with handwriting, but, in my experience, that's not the case.

At my school, not having a pen licence doesn't mean you only write in pencil. As part of our marking policy, we use a "tickled pink" pen to celebrate achievements in written work and a "growing green" pen to show ways forward or correct mistakes. When pupils are self- and peer-assessing, they use the same pens.

And equally, a child with a pen licence doesn't use a pen exclusively. Many chose to write in pencil particularly when note-taking, drafting a piece of writing or when working-out calculations in maths and numeracy tasks.

Personally, I found pen licences to be a useful tool to encourage and motivate pupils to continue to develop their handwriting skills, as well as a pride in the presentation of their work. In my experience, it also improves concentration and focus when writing, which, in turn, results in fewer mistakes.

More teaching and learning:

'Pen licences are isolating and detrimental to emotional wellbeing'

Ceridwen Eccles, Year 5 classroom teacher and art and design and technology coordinator, says: 

I first came across pen licences when my own son reached Year 5. At the time, I thought it sounded like a fun and inspiring idea to encourage consistent and excellent presentation, with the reward of a little badge or certificate and, ultimately, a pen to use in class.

It wasn't until I saw the impact it had on him that I realised this was something I would never have in my classroom. He never achieved his pen licence, and the sense of failure and negativity he felt over this had a massive impact on him.

When I moved to teach in upper key stage 2, I told my class that, instead of pen licences, I had high expectations of presentation, regardless of the writing implement they chose to use. I have a little phrase that the children parrot back to me. I say, "I am a presentation…" and the children call back, "pest!". It causes much amusement, and breaks down barriers of fear and worry about what their work might look like.

Different pens and pencils suit different children: some (particularly left-handed children) write better in pen, while others prefer to use a pencil. I allow them to explore a range and decide for themselves which one they write best with. The only rule I have is that, if using a pen, the bulk of the writing is in blue or black.

I do understand the rationale for pen licences but, personally, I find them limiting in terms of independent reflection and evaluation of work, isolating and detrimental to emotional wellbeing, and unnecessary in terms of peer competition and rivalry in class.

Setting high expectations, allowing freedom in writing tools and continual self-reflection are key to consistent, quality presentation. I even allow the children to use coloured gel pens to make their presentation "pop" - my only caveat is not to use neon colours as my "old lady eyes" can't read it.

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