SOMEBODY has to be doing something right in education, to judge by the letters I'm getting. For many years now, I've secretly believed that vetting a children's author's mail is probably the best way to judge the improvement or deterioration of schooling in Britain. Loads of the letters come individually, of course, mostly from children who have something to say and the skills to say it. But the class batch is a very different matter. And whereas, with honourable exceptions, a goodly number of the letters I was getting in the Eighties were enough to make an imbecile weep and any writer (or reader) fear for the future of the nation, something's been steadily, definitely changing.
And for the better. Let's take, first, the sheer look of them. Ten and more years ago, it was a rare child who appeared to have been introduced to the concept of margins. The writing just crawled on or fell off the sides of the page. A lot of the handwriting was disgusting, when it wasn't pretentiously small or pretentiously enormous. The spelling - with even the most basic or egregious errors left uncorrected - was hair-raising when it didn't make you laugh. (Which it stopped doing quite fast.) "How To Set Out A Letter Properly" had clearly escaped from the syllabus leaving no trace. And the only attention anyone appeared to have paid to anything was the little smiley faces drawn, with excruciating care, instead of dots, over each i - even capitals. (In comparison, I once introduced the unclosed "Greek" letter e into my handwriting in school. It was a pity I chose the Spanish teacher's homework to try it on. Her response came back promptly at the bottom of my returned work: Que dejas al instante esta afectation de la y griega! which I worked out (laboriously) to mean "Leave off this affectation of the Greek e at once!"
So, with so little emphasis on basic pedagogic nagging, had creativity flourished? No, it had not. The letters were thin and boring. They showed little evidence of reading at all, let alone wide reading. They also showed a lack of direction and knowledge from on top. I'd read letters from nine-year-olds that said things like, "I love your books. I've just read two of them. Round Behind the Icehouse and Stranger Danger. I can't find any more." I'd reel arond the room, exasperated. The first book probably much too old for her, the second too young. However much a child reads, she can't be ripe for these extremes at once. And where were the titles for her own age? Why hadn't anyone found her The Angel of Nitshill Road? Or Bill's New Frock? Or Crummy Mummy?
Again, everything's changed. Now, the only boring bits of the letters are the huge long lists of everything I've written for the age group they've met in their book box, or their "author focus", or whatever. They suggest ideas, send me their own versions (Diary of a Killer Vole is quite a favourite). And, of course, they compliment or complain. They tell me about their other favourite authors, and it's clear they're reading more widely and missing fewer of the authors who will give them pleasure. And maybe because the sheer mechanics of writing and reading are no longer slowing them down, the letters themselves seem happier, more lively, and, dare I say it, out of the more disciplined approach flowers a lot more creativity.
So you tell me. What was it? Was it that parents were able to make plain their preference for more literate offspring by opting for schools they knew cared more about things like this? Is it that huge blanks show up at testing time and can be sorted? (I got a letter last week where every plural - every word ending in s, in fact - had its own little grocer's apostrophe, and realised, with delight, it had become an exception.) I'm guessing the skills of only the youngest of my correspondents can fairly be said to say much about the literacy hour. But though I hear the same horror stories as everyone else about egg-timers ringing one paragraph before the end of a story and everyone stopping, I can't help but remain optimistic and think this sort of tale reflects on no one but someone trying to make a point.
Whatever it is - and I would love to know - the difference is startling. And very cheering. After all, nobody wants to sit writing year after year fearing there'll only be the thinnest pool of readers at the end to enjoy their efforts. From being a focus of some gloom, my letterbox has become a joy. Thank you, everyone. Thank you.
Anne Fine's latest novel for children, Bad Dreams, is published by Doubleday