Citizenship - Privilege takes the biscuit

Wigan students are inspired by George Orwell's political writing

Helen Amass

At Sunshine House community centre in Wigan, a group of students are getting ready to race. The stakes are high: two Kit Kats are up for grabs.

Workshop leader and playwright Avaes Mohammad lifts his hand. The students grow tense, preparing to sprint. But he stops them at the last moment. "Wait," he says, ignoring their irritation. "One last thing before we start."

Boys are asked to take a step forward, girls a step back. This is a diverse group, but having white skin, parents who have degrees and the regular opportunity to travel abroad also win the students a step towards the chocolate. As the gap between those at the front of the group and those at the back widens, the students wake up to what is going on.

"It's kind of like society, really," one says. "Whoever has the easiest route is going to get the chocolate."

Mohammad's workshop, which introduces the concept of social privilege, is one of a series run by the Orwell Prize, which recognises political writing and takes political argument to events around the country.

The scheme was piloted last year after being set up by Stephen Armstrong, author of The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, and Barbara Nettleton, director of Sunshine House. For the pilot, writers such as Will Self and Ed McCardie travelled to Wigan to talk to young people about journalism, free speech and the power of words. It proved so popular with local schools that it has been expanded to become a biannual event.

In February, writers including Rosie Boycott and John Hegley - along with free-speech charity English PEN - worked with more than 100 students aged 12-18 from several schools around Wigan, exploring topics from performance poetry to journalistic writing. Carnegie Medal-winning author Meg Rosoff will be among the writers joining the line-up for the next series of sessions in the autumn term.

Back in Mohammad's workshop, the Kit Kat race has inspired the students, who set about writing vivid accounts of their childhoods, while imagining that they live in a society where sharing memories is a punishable offence. Drawing on the legacy of George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, one group goes so far as to leave a blank space in place of names, in order to protect loved ones from persecution.

Orwell's involvement with Wigan began in 1936, when he was sent to report on poverty in the North of England. His book The Road to Wigan Pier thrust the town into the public eye, drawing attention to the social injustice and hardships experienced by the working class on a daily basis.

"Orwell did for Wigan what we hope all writers can do for their subjects: he wrote freely and used his words to change the world," says Jo Glanville, director of English PEN and an Orwell Prize judge. "These workshops will inspire the next generation of writers from Wigan to do the same."

In 1946, Orwell wrote that what he most wanted to do was "make political writing into an art". Even today, many feel this is a genre not taught enough in schools, offering as it does unparalleled opportunities to use the power of words to shape the world around us.

At Sunshine House, the chocolate was predictably snatched by the white males who, with little effort, ended up at the front. Mohammad asks his students what starting position they would expect a writer to occupy in the race.

"They could be anywhere," a 12-year-old girl answers with conviction. "A writer can be anyone."

To find out more about events run by the Orwell Prize, visit


Introduce your students to George Orwell, his background and what led him to write Animal Farm and 1984 in a lesson from figrech. bit.lyGeorgeOrwellIntro

Try Georgina Brigden's 10 lesson plans based on Animal Farm, with a reading assessment on allegory and the use of propaganda. bit.lyAnimalFarmsow.

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Helen Amass

Helen Amass

Helen Amass is Deputy Commissioning Editor @tes

Find me on Twitter @Helen_Amass

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