Poetry unlocks pupils' worlds

Biddy Passmore

POETRY, said Coleridge, is the best words in the best order. But for pupils at The Learning Centre in Dudley, it has been even more than that: the key to high achievement and an "immeasurable" growth in confidence, writes Biddy Passmore.

They have learnt to write and to perform their "best words" and won praise from their peers and the public.

Young people attend the centre, a pupil-referral unit in Netherton in the West Midlands, because their education has suffered from long-term disruption. Some have childhood cancers such as leukaemia, some have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Others have a school phobia which means they cannot enter a classroom without being sick.

Many have missed large chunks of education, lack confidence and write reluctantly. Some are reluctant speakers, too, and find it difficult to interact, often due to severe bullying in mainstream school.

Tess Olive, an English teacher at the centre, devised the Poetry Project to help the 11 to 16-year-olds overcome those hurdles. It included teacher-led poetry workshops, a day at the local activity centre and visits from poets Ian MacMillan and Mike Tinsley, as well as a visit to a poetry conference where they saw Simon Armitage and John Agard perform their work.

The pupils' resulting poems were remarkable - so good the centre decided to print them in a book, to be sold for a donation of pound;1 to support a local hospice. Launched at the nearby WH Smith, it proved a hit. Last month, after an enthusiastic member of the public sent the book to the local radio station, four of the young poets went to the BBC studios at Pebble Mill to broadcast their work live. While they were on air, people phoned the station to ask for copies. Back at the centre, their fellow pupils cheered.

"Pupils who thought they would achieve little found achievements being recognised way beyond the confines of education," said Mrs Olive. "They met challenges that would have been daunting for anyone, with confidence and poise."

"It's given me such a boost," said Victoria Booth, 16. "At my old school (a mainstream comprehensive) I was bullied and nobody took much notice of my interest in writing."

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