Fiction can become reality

14th July 1995 at 01:00
Chairman of the Arvon Foundation Brian Cox outlines a plan which he hopes will encourage English teachers to write. At a recent Arvon course on writing a teacher of English said: "How can we dare to ask children to write if we aren't writing ourselves?" Increasingly teachers of English acknowledge that if they are to act as role-models they must share their own writing with their pupils.

Such proposals make some teachers very nervous, for they suspect that they will never be successful as writers. If at a training course they are asked to experiment in writing exercises they fear to show their efforts to their peers.

This fear of writing is a curse. For one term in 1950 I attended F R Leavis's seminar at Downing College, Cambridge. His sneers at poets whom he considered failures - Shelley, Tennyson or Dylan Thomas - inflicted on his students a distrust of their own abilities, a belief that if they could not emulate the achievements of Jane Austen or D H Lawrence they should not write at all. This self-doubt still exists in the minds of many teachers of English. We need to remove this burden of fear from teachers, and to help them to enjoy writing.

Creative writing was given a bad name in the 1960s when it became associated with indulgent self-expression, free modes of writing without the constraints of appropriate grammar or accurate spelling. This kind of permissive teaching was a travesty of what can be achieved by creative writing.

Ted Hughes has written that any first hand experience of the work of good English teachers shows that properly taught creative writing is a rigorous discipline that calls on the activity of the whole mind, incidentally releasing enormous energy for other classroom purposes. The notion that writing is somehow more self indulgent, undisciplined or easy than other forms of creation is false. Responsible teaching is that which develops purposeful artistry in the handling of the medium. Isaac Babel wrote: "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a full-stop in the right place." Students need to respect the imaginative force of organised language.

For many years Ted Hughes has been involved with the W H Smith annual children's literary competition. He has found that the writing skills of school children in the UK are of an astonishing abundance and quality, but this abundance and quality are entirely dependent on the individual teacher. High quality writing by children has become more prevalent through the last decades, and this reflects an increasing skill in the teachers.

Ted Hughes says that all this creation, and richly cultivated ability is, in most cases, utterly destroyed soon after the pupil leaves the school. Courses in English in British higher education concentrated in the past on literary criticism and history, usually without creative writing. In recent years courses on literary theory have proliferated. Only when all courses in English include encouragement of creative writing shall we liberate students from this oppressive regime.

Opponents of creative writing often refer to the American experience, where writing courses form a normal part of the curriculum throughout higher education. Are standards of literacy any higher as a result? I have witnessed some excellent creative writing courses in the States. The writer on campus, such as Robert Frost, Robert Lowell or Delmore Schwartz, became a phenomenon which encouraged many students to develop their own creative talents. On the other hand, American writing workshops have often reduced themselves to bohemian spectacle, a party that never ends. American writing courses have created their own genre, often a stone-cold dead standardised short story. Some courses have been too prescriptive, intimidating the students with too much theory about plot or character or imagery.

Creative writing courses should help students to maximise their own special abilities. They should open up possibilities in a variety of genres, not impose a rigid framework. This kind of course is seen at its most successful in the work of the Arvon Foundation.

I became chairman of the Arvon Foundation a year ago, and I am proud to have been asked to take up this work. Arvon attracts more than 1,000 adult students each year on its open courses, as well as running closed courses for schools and colleges. Now in its 27th year, Arvon has three residential centres: Lumb Bank, in an isolated valley in the Pennines in West Yorkshire; Moniack Mhor, west of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland; Totleigh Barton, in the middle of Devon.

Going to an Arvon centre removes students from everyday life and places them in a beautiful house and setting alongside other writers. There are two tutors on each course - experienced professional writers who live in the centre with the students throughout the course. Students are able to work with them individually, and to take part in a variety of group discussions. There are readings by the tutors and by a visiting mid-week reader. All tutors bring their own approach, but the framework almost always involves tutorials, as well as the opportunity for the students to continue writing on their own.

An Arvon course aims to develop a warm, informal and friendly atmosphere. Students and tutors alike treat the centre as their home, making their own breakfasts and lunches and sharing the cooking of evening meals. Centre directors, who run the centres and programme the courses, also act as hosts, and are always on hand when needed.

This year Arvon is launching a high-profile campaign to persuade all teachers and trainee-teachers of English that they should attend an Arvon-style course in writing. Our aim is to provide the opportunity for teachers of English, at whatever level, and teacher trainees, to try writing at first hand - in other words, to provide field courses in English.

This year we have run five pilot courses for teachers and teacher-trainees. These courses are designed to offer personal development and curriculum development at the same time, linking the two implicitly and explicitly. Participants should discover the fun, excitement and self-fulfilment that comes through writing, acquire a practical knowledge of the techniques involved, and thus gain confidence in seeing themselves as working writers. It is anticipated that teachers attending these courses will return to their schools encouraged and revitalised, and thus be enabled to pass their experience on to pupils.

In November we intend to publish a booklet which will describe the pilot courses, and Arvon's aims for future initiatives in education. We shall send free copies to all British institutions which train teachers, and invite them to encourage students to attend our courses. Obviously the Arvon Foundation is not large enough to provide courses for all trainee-teachers. We are hoping that other institutions will follow our example, and, of course, creative writing already figures in some training programmes (the work of Dr Peter Abbs at Sussex, for example).

In this period of cuts and excessive pressure on teachers and schools we hope this Arvon initiative will attract considerable support. It brings us back to the joy and privilege of teaching English as a vocation. Arvon has already has built up a substantial bursary fund to subsidise courses for students and the unemployed, and we are busy raising funds so we can offer our courses to teachers at acceptably low prices.

The 1989 national curriculum for English, prepared by my working group, insisted that pupils should be given varied and frequent opportunities to write. Pupils at key stages 3 and 4 should be offered opportunities to write in a range of forms: notes, diaries, personal letters, chronological accounts, pamphlets, book reviews, advertisements, comic strips, poems, stories and play-scripts. They should be helped to recognise the importance of drafting and redrafting, and of knowing what kind of audience they have in mind.

The new very slimmed-down national curriculum for English to be introduced this autumn supports this approach. The section on writing begins: "Pupils should be encouraged to extend their confidence in writing for a variety of purposes and to develop their own distinctive and original style, recognising the importance of commitment and vitality in what they write." Emphasis is placed on the importance for pupils of drafting and redrafting and proofreading their work on paper and on screen. In an important article in The TES on March 3 this year the professional officers at SCAA said that teachers who are currently teaching the full range of requirements as laid down in the 1989 English curriculum should not need to undertake any whole scale replanning of their work for the revised 1995 curriculum. The success of these proposals for children's writing could be jeopardised by unsatisfactory methods of testing. Writing for real audiences, with revision and new drafts after discussion with the teacher and the peer group, can be properly assessed only by course work. The Government's opposition to an increase in assessment by course work (even when Sir Ron Dearing himself had proposed an increase) is based on a failure to understand how high standards in writing are achieved.

My dream is that within a few years course work will form a major part in assessment for English at both GCSE and A-level, and that creative writing will form a significant element in the teaching of English at all levels. My dream is that it will soon be common for all teachers of English and teacher-trainees to attend Arvon-style courses in writing, and that this will release a great surge of creative energy into our schools. This should be a top priority for the new Government after the next General Election.

Professor Brian Cox's new book, The Battle for the English Curriculum, will be published by Hodder and Stoughton next month.

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