We could use coloured pens for science in Year 5, but now we're Year 6 we can't," says Jem. Coloured writing is not "proper" - it's for greetings cards and silly love notes: grown-ups don't use it. Of course, in art and design it suddenly becomes all right to do fancy writing in coloured pens. Actually, the current craze for pens, in all kinds of crazy colours and crazy packs, can be used for many straightforward curricular goals.
Testing them out on different weights and thicknesses of paper, wet and dry, is not just technology, it's science, too. The viscosity of the ink, the absorption of the paper, the ability of some of the new inks to mix on the page when wet, the fascination of the unexpected blob of bronze gloop and the way it can run onto your hand, whether it can be dissolved with soap and water: all of this is raw experimental data in a technicoloured dreamcoat.
Children love the pens, in all their marbled, zebra-striped, gel-suspended, acid-bright, glitter-added, metallic glory, for sheer exuberance of colour. "My writing just looks so nice," said Marie. With the promotion of writing at key stage 2 a national goal this year, why not pres these pens into service? Get the class to write a story, with different characters "speaking" in different colours. This could be developed by giving them shades of colour to express thoughts, words and actions; start a discussion on exploring mood in writing and get them to agree on a correlation between a mood and a colour: ghostly green, maybe, or calm blue?
Exams have to be written in sober colours on a white background: why is that? There are interesting aspects to putting handwriting in context in this way: why can a note for the milkman be in pencil, but a note from the doctor to the pharmacist must be in ink? Why does writing in black and blue appear to be dull to pupils?
There are citizenship issues here, about choice, conformity, rules and valuing diversity. What does that wicked new set of smelly gel pens tell us about Bethan? She follows fashion, likes to have fun and enjoys using a green pen that smells of mint and a red one that gives off aroma of cherry. That's a lot more than anyone can tell from her name written in blue on the top of a SATs sheet. But perhaps it's not information that has a place in our test-mad system.