The high-octane fuel

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall finds out how a Bewdley school produces students with a passion for poetry and, below, two of them recall mixing with practising writers at a literature festival.

Standing at the urinals in the staff loo at Bewdley High School, you're confronted at eye level with a lengthy newspaper article, offering insights into "The Magic and Moral Drama of William Golding".

Though the woman from the Office for Standards in Education who recently gave the school's English department a glowing report will presumably have missed this item, there are plenty of other clues to indicate the Bewdley teachers' strong commitment to English literature in general, and poetry and creative writing in particular.

On the classroom walls are photographs of different groups of students on residential creative writing courses. Above the blackboard in one room are various definitions of poetry ("Poetry is truth with a heartbeat"; "Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh lesson"); in another the back wall is dominated by a portrait of Seamus Heaney.

In one classroom I watched two dozen Year 9 students responding to an invitation to write lines prompted by the repeated phrase: "On the day that I was born . . ." In the other I observed a Year 11 group read and discuss Heaney's wonderful poem "Death of a Naturalist", in which he recalls childhood awakenings.

"We probably put more emphasis on reading and writing poetry than most schools," says head of English Ron Capell. "It's the high-octane fuel that drives everything else, and we think it's important to promote that when schools are beset by so much that is restrictive."

The Bewdley students are given plenty of opportunity and encouragement to write themselves. Five groups a year now go on courses run by the Arvon Foundation or the Taliesin Trust, where they work with professional poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Adrian Henri, Matthew Sweeney and Gerard Benson.

Some 80 per cent of students in Year 13 have attended at least one course; 50 per cent have attended two or more. There are also frequent readings in school by visiting poets, and regular visits to the Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye literature festivals, where for the past four years some of the students have helped out as stewards, and so been able to attend talks and meet writers.

"All this helps to demystify the whole business of writing and gives the students greater confidence to do it themselves," says English teacher Michael Woods. "And it means that when they come to study literature, they've actually been through the process."

The staff clearly invest a huge amount of extra-curricular time in these activities, not just after school but at weekends, during half-term and in the holidays. But the extra effort certainly appears to pay off for the pupils when it comes to examinations.

No student has failed English Literature for the past 13 years. In 1994 the proportion of the year group gaining A-C grades in both English and English Literature was nearly 30 per cent above the national expectation, while the proportion of students achieving the top grades in both subjects was double the national norm. The A-level results were just as good.

Equally significantly, there is evidently a high level of personal interest in literature among the students, boys as much as girls. I spent more than an hour with a dozen from Years 11-13, who talked with obvious enthusiasm and perception about what poetry meant to them, and about their own writing.

They had found the residential courses inspirational, they said, and they also recognised the value of their many encounters with practising poets. "You stop thinking of them as famous people living in far-off cottages, you realise they're just ordinary people like everyone else," one girl explained.

Their enthusiasms ranged from Emily Bront to Stephen King, from Angela Carter to T S Eliot, with Yeats very much the flavour of the month. Several happily read out poems they had written on the residential courses. The quality was impressive: one boy's first-ever poem, about the death of his great-grandmother when he was four, was astonishingly assured.

Headteacher Margaret Griffiths, herself a former English teacher, believes the subject is popular with the students because it's not simply a question, as in other areas, of a body of knowledge. "It accepts their ideas and opinions, it can include so much of their own lives," she says. "And poetry particularly gives them an understanding of themselves."

One girl, Una Devlin, read out a short poem that had recently been published in Tandem. Though produced by the Bewdley English department, this is not an internal school magazine, but a glossy national poetry publication, edited by Michael Woods, which publishes new poets alongside established names.

Some of the students are involved in selecting the poems, others in the magazine's production. The last issue included something of a coup: an original poem by Seamus Heaney (see panel). When thanked for it, the Nobel Prize winner replied: "In Tandem you are providing breathing space and exercise ground for a wonderful range of talents."

What lies behind the school's success in promoting poetry? The answer seems to be a combination of the extraordinary level of extra-curricular activity, the evident passion for poetry among key teachers and, not least, the nature of the school's intake and catchment area.

A small friendly place catering for 640 students aged 13-18, the school stands in an attractive rural setting alongside the winding River Severn not far from the centre of Bewdley, a beautiful Georgian town with more than its fair share of middle-class families.

"Although we're a comprehensive, we have a wealth of able and interested pupils," says headteacher Margaret Griffiths. "Bewdley is full of teachers, musicians, and artists, and many send their children here because they've heard of the writing courses and poetry workshops. They're a big selling point. "

But she believes the crucial element is the teachers' enthusiasm, which goes well beyond the call of duty. "There's less separation than usual between their life and work," she says. "As Hopkins put it, 'What I do is me.' They must have very patient partners: it's like having an alternative marriage."

For details of Tandem write to 13 Stephenson Road, Barbourne, Worcester WRl 3EB.

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