Writers have long played a recognised role in schools and now their involvement is better organised. Jonathan Croall explains.
The students look intently at the brooding self-portrait of Paul Gauguin. "Confused but empty," says one boy. "Surrounded by his useless power," a girl offers. Others come up with words and phrases suggesting menace, loneliness, depression.
John Killick believes art can be a valuable stimulus in getting children to write poetry. This morning, in the role of visiting writer, he's helping 20 Year 7 and 8 students at Hipperholme and Lightcliffe School in Calderdale create a group poem out of the imagined feelings of the painter's subject.
The students, all members of an after-school poetry club, respond keenly and imaginatively. "You've brought out almost every emotion possible," John Killick tells them approvingly as he starts to arrange their phrases into a meaningful sequence. "You've found a whole novel in this one picture."
His visit to this 11 to 18 school on the edge of the Pennines in West Yorkshire is typical of the contact many writers now have with schools, in contrast to that of 25 years ago when writers-in-schools schemes were only just getting established.
Then writers came in to give a talk or read from their work, or just occasionally to run a writing workshop. While such one-off visits still occur, the norm these days is an extended visit or mini-residency. This gives the writer a chance to develop a more sustained relationship with the school, and teachers the opportunity to plunder the writer's expertise more extensively.
Sometimes a whole school may even be targeted, as happened with a recent visit by the poet Gillian Clarke to a West Sussex primary school, when the timetable was cleared for three days and the children did nothing but write poems. Increasingly, writers are being seen as teachers as much as entertainers.
But while visiting writers often create genuine excitement in schools, their visits can prove problematic. Poor planning or a failure in communication are usually to blame when things go wrong, though stories still circulate about teachers bringing their marking into the visitor's session, or writers being poorly prepared or ineffective communicators.
How can schools be sure they get the person they want? As Maura Dooley points out in her valuable recent study of this field: "Some writers' success has less to do with the quality of their work than their glossy promotional leaflet landing on the right desk at the moment when a school discovers it has a few pounds in the kitty."
Outside bodies can help. Hipperholme, which had not had a writer in before, booked John Killick through The Poetry SocietyW H Smith Poets-in-Schools scheme, which gives guidance over the choice of writer. The arrangement entails a preliminary half-day visit, a full day's work, and a final half day - in this case devoted to performance in a poetry festival.
Both parties felt the full day had been fruitful for the Hipperholme students. "Their response exceeded that of any I've had from that age-group," John Killick says afterwards. English teacher Andrew Wilson concurs: "As a published poet John has a lot of credibility, and I'm really pleased with the way the kids worked with him."
There were, however, organisational mishaps. During the afternoon a projector failed to work; John Killick had to spend 10 minutes improvising while choosing slides he thought had already been selected; and a reporter from Radio Leeds caused considerable disruption by recording the children reading their poems and withdrawing the teacher for a lengthy interview.
"It was a bit chaotic; it showed a degree of inexperience," he suggests. "The writer has to give a lead, but he also has to be used as part of a proper plan of campaign."
Helping to improve the way writers are used in schools is one of the aims of the National Association of Writers in Education, a body for teachers, writers, literature development workers and others involved in creative writing in education, which began in the North, and went nationwide in 1990.
"We felt many writers' visits were haphazard, misconceived or just seen as a luxury," recalls Paul Munden, NAWE's development worker. "They weren't planned well, they weren't being followed up or evaluated, and all too often teachers and writers weren't working together. We wanted to open up a dialogue."
With more than 300 members, NAWE organises courses and professional workshops, where advice is given on planning and evaluating a residency. It also runs conferences examining current theory and practice in writing, and produces a termly magazine.
Its directory lists 80 experienced writers available for readings, placements, workshops and residencies. Each has the association's seal of approval, backed up by two individual references. The directory will shortly be on the Internet, allowing for instant updating.
Recently the association has extended its work into new territory. Workshops and placements have been organised to help writers work with children, young people and adults with special educational needs. "It's rather a neglected area for writers," Paul Munden observes.
The near-destruction of the advisory service has meant a loss of key players in the writers' schemes, and a reduction in the number of visits. There are also still many schools unaware of the experience that has been built up. NAWE and other relevant bodies still have an uphill task to help make teachers and writers more effective partners.
NAWE is at PO Box 1, Sheriff Hutton, York Y06 7YU. Tel: 01653 618429
* A Beginning, Middle and End? A Study of the Work of Writers in Education by Maura Dooley,available free from London Arts Board, Elme House, 133 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9AF