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Creative writers go for drama

Sats markers should look at writing ability, not how well pupils read the question, says Rod Dungate

The train sped through the countryside like a black snake. Melanie sat in a carriage on one of the brown leather seats leaning against the window. She was small for her 18 years with large amounts of silky-brown hair and large brown eyes like a fawn. She was travelling alone to see her aunt and uncle.

Melanie sat in a first-class carriage and everyone in it wore refined clothes. There were lace shawls, satin and brocade evening gowns, silken top hats.

"It was growing dark and Melanie was beginning to get hungry. So she got up and opened the mahogany carriage door and stepped out into the corridor. .


"The front (of the dining carriage) was full of black leather sofas for people to sit on while they waited for a table. Then there were the tables dotted around the carriage. They were made from solid green marble, well-cut, with dark red leather seats. There was a bar at the far end of the carriage with a tall man wearing a purple waistcoat serving drinks . .

. The carriage was very crowded. A handsome young man with straight blonde-brown hair and pale skin, carrying a wine glass with red wine in it, knocked Melanie sideways and spilt the entire contents down her gown.

Melanie gasped. The young man's eyes and mouth grew rounder and rounder by the second.

"'I'm sorry,' apologised the tall young man, setting the wine glass on a table next to him.

"'It doesn't matter,' sighed Melanie.

"'No, I'll take you to my en suite to help you clean it up,' the young man said firmly. . . .

*********** That was a selection of extracts from Love at First Spill, a romance. Not bad for a 10-year-old is it? The tale continues as a rip-roaring, bodice-ripping yarn - at the same time evocative of Victorian or Edwardian romance and a terrific pastiche.

In Birmingham's advanced learning centres students are awarded certificates at the end of their year-long course; this young writer was awarded a gold star certificate. To earn this highest award a student must write 12 pieces of work, across all of the nine genres we look at - a substantial commitment. Moreover, we also require that the student's voice clearly comes through.

Advanced learning centres have been set up by The National Primary Trust, and funded by the Government, to meet the needs of primary-aged children showing high aptitude in particular subject or skill areas. The first was established in 1996 in Birmingham, in mathematics. There are now more than 65 ALCs across the country covering 13 subjects.

This story grew out of a "speed writing" imagination development exercise; moreover, the student also demonstrates another technique we explore with them - when expanding the germ of a story into a proper story idea apply a genre to help you. Here the student applied the genre romance to her idea of the speeding train.

Surprising, then, when chatting to the girl's headteacher, to learn that this young person achieved only a level 4 in her Sats. As the head and I continued talking I became more concerned about what I was hearing.

Do you remember the exercise in persuasive writing last year - to complete a dialogue in which a child argues to be allowed to stay up and watch a television programme? My understanding is that youngsters who used lines like, "Oh, please let me watch it. Oh, please, I'll go down on my knees and love you for ever . . . " were marked down on the basis that they didn't present the argument carefully from all sides - that is "persuasively" (at least as the examiner understands the word.) The dear old examiner (whoever she or he is) clearly has failed to take into account the importance of form in carrying meaning. Truly creative writers will look at the dialogue form and realise they are being offered an opportunity to create a dramatic scene. They will understand that drama comes from conflict and tension and write accordingly (even enjoying themselves while they do it.) The examiner will, no doubt, explain that the youngsters are instructed and led to present the argument from all sides . . . but then promptly misleads them by giving Joe, the child in the dialogue, the acting instruction "pleading".

No doubt the examiner will stick to their guns - "Children must read the question carefully". Hmm, in that case aren't we testing the students'

ability to read rather than to write? Surely people as eminent as examiners can't have failed to work out what they are actually testing?

Here are a couple of things for us to think about. Are our young students being disadvantaged within the system as it exists by being enabled to write at a level beyond which the Sats test? Which is better for our young gifted and talented writers - the broad horizons of their imagination or Civil Service- approved shackles?

Rod Dungate is a playwright and poet. Working through the Personal Performance partnership, he teaches an Advanced Learning Centre course in English (creative writing). See;; contact Jayne Basnett at The National Primary Trust:

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