A story a day keeps inequality at bay
Long ago a visiting HMI paused in the course of imparting her advice while she placed rolls of film for processing with a professional photographer.
She explained that the pictures, shot with an expensive camera, were for her daughter's local history GCSE coursework.
She said, with a faintly guilty smile, "Extravagant I suppose, but we want to give her every chance possible".
The behaviour, of course, of every caring parent. But at the same time I wondered silently whether she was conscious of an irony. We had just come from a disadvantaged inner-city comprehensive where she had found the standards seriously wanting, particularly the quality of the coursework.
I was reminded of that exchange by a particular child's response to this year's key stage 2 English writing test, asking children to describe a favourite meal with reference to appearance, taste and smell.
He simply wrote, "Bacen" (sic). His disconsolate teacher remarked: "He is capable of more than that; he's got the technique. It's the experience that's missing."
Those who framed the test question might understandably ask what theme could possibly have been more child-friendly than a favourite meal.
But the boy's answer, and the teacher's comment, led me to wonder whether that particular question had unintentionally handicapped some children by unduly favouring others.
So I surveyed a little group of children - and their parents - from largely professional backgrounds, and gathered the following broad impressions of how they had tackled the question.
One, suspecting that vivid description was called for, rejected his first instinct to write about fresh salmon and new potatoes garnished with parsley sauce, and opted instead for spaghetti bolognaise.
For similar reasons, a second child opted for curried chicken. One girl talked ardently about roast dinners: beef or chicken with succulent, golden potatoes and gravy-soaked Yorkshire pudding.
Another interviewee decided on the nation's favourite, pizza, but indicated that it was the unique atmosphere of the local trattoria, their rare herbs and garlic bread that made the dish special for her. One writer, believing the illustration implied that favourite meals were comprised of only a single course, decided to forfeit a starter of moules marini res.
The children's observations were made with time for reflection and elaboration, but I suspect that their written answers had conveyed the same assurance, coherence and persuasiveness.
I suggest that such competence derives, to a significant extent, from diverse experience. That is why the favourite meal question illustrates the extent to which children are circumscribed, as learners and as writers, by the limits of their experience.
Some teachers try to compensate by placing a disproportionate emphasis on technique - and this could be where the problem lies.
Primary teachers are more competent than ever in the teaching of English, minutely informed as they are about genre, purpose, audience and style. In the long run, however, it is the extent and quality of experience that determines the substance of writing. Experience generates writing; technique shapes it. Technique, for all its importance, is scaffolding. If it becomes a substitute for experience, then writing will be stilted and limited.
For instance, many schools concentrate on specific processes when they teach narrative writing: the construction of "openings" and conclusions, creating character through superficial features rather than response to circumstances and interaction with others, or a lavish use of adjectives and adverbs. This is not to minimise the importance of mastering technique.
But time and again children's writing lacks narrative substance, simply because those who do not have enriching, diverse experiences will struggle to construct coherent, substantial plots and to maintain a meaningful storyline. Instead, they fall back on impoverished or wildly fantastic TV plots, and find themselves in narrative quagmires from which it is difficult to extricate themselves.
Teachers may well ask, despairingly, what more they can do to compensate for circumstances in children's lives that are beyond their control.
I would simply suggest this: alongside a curriculum as rich as possible, and some focused work on children's speaking and listening, establish a policy for the provision of narrative. This would comprise a range of high-quality stories provided for children on a daily basis.
The policy would offer suggestions about creative use of the material. It would include substantial works by recognised writers, but - most important of all - it would consist in the main of short stories, matched to children's development and capable of being encompassed within a few sessions of an hour or two. The vital point is that children should be easily able to perceive plot in its entirety.
When children are immersed in narrative, their technical skills will develop over time, alongside a maturing awareness and command of language.
Fewer children will be flummoxed by test papers. Most enduring of all is the experience of a transforming process that could enrich their vision of themselves and the world at large.
Bill Laar is an education consultant