Pupils writing about Brexit, Theresa May - and unicorns

Children's entries to a short story competition had titles like 'Aliens in Brexit' and 'A Unicorn Called Brexit'

Tes Reporter


Theresa May and Brexit are having a surprising influence on pupils’ creativity, according to language experts.

Every year, Oxford University Press (OUP) analyses thousands of entries to a short story competition.

And the linguists and lexicographers have crowned "Brexit" the "children's word of the year".

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They discovered that the political impasse over Brexit and the prime minister's difficulties in negotiating an exit deal have had an impact on children's creative writing.

In their stories, they are trying to make a deal, to help a beleaguered Ms May or simply to cancel Brexit.

Alongside the increase in political vocabulary were several references to the "backstop" and to "no deal".

Story titles include The Cat Who Solved Brexit, Aliens In Brexit and A Unicorn Called Brexit.

The word “Brexit” was used 418 times, compared with just 89 the previous year. And mentions of Ms May went up from 118 last year to 287 this year.

More than 100,000 stories were entered for the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show competition, and then subsequently analysed by OUP.

'Brexit is front and centre'

Helen Freeman, director of publishing operations for OUP, said: "What is an extremely complex and difficult issue for some of the finest political minds has inspired children's creativity and inventiveness in a really interesting and smart way.

"In 2017 and 2018, Brexit was mostly referred to as a boring subject parents talked about, as something in the background.

"This year it is a very different picture – Brexit is front and centre of the action, with children swooping in to help Theresa May in a proactive, empowered and fun way."

Unicorns are still most the popular real or fantasy animal, with 15,000 mentions, while digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri are also frequent characters in stories.

This year, there was also an increase in the use of words like “veggie” and “vegan”, and another rise in mentions of plastic, which was the 2018 word of the year.

The research also found a fascination with sloths, the slow-moving animals, which appeared a record 1,100 times this year.

Despite drawing inspiration from an animal with a reputation for laziness, the children demonstrated a desire for action in their stories, Ms Freeman said.

"This year's stories show an overwhelming desire among children to take action and create positive change themselves, at home, at school and in society more generally," she said. "Agency and empowerment are massive themes."

Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is the most-mentioned real person, followed by Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler and Harry Kane.

The 500 Words contest, for pupils aged 5 to 13, was created by former Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans and has received over 900,000 entries since its launch in 2011.

The 500 Words Live Final takes place on Friday, from Windsor Castle, with the Duchess of Cornwall as honorary judge and Martin Sheen, Helen McCrory, David Walliams and Hugh Bonneville among the celebrity readers.

This year's competition, hosted by Zoe Ball's Breakfast Show with OUP, received 112,986 entries.

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