Killing imagination is the devil's work

11th June 2004 at 01:00
On autumn Fridays, my class of 27 Years 4, 5 and 6 turn their tables to gaze at the field that sweeps from the church to the stream where badgers drink by moonlight, on the edge of Kingsdon Woods. Then we all begin to write.

"There's a knight," I point out, "galloping out of the churchyard. Look at him! What is he wearing? Why is his horse rearing? Is he evil? Is he good? Is he a ghost? He's wearing plumes, carrying a banner, rescuing maidens, fighting the devil."

The answers come thick and fast. Soon, heads are down, glancing occasionally at the knight, now alive and leaping over hedges. Pencils race across pages, regardless of syntax or spelling, metaphors pour like wine into complex sentences; we are covering the literacy hour while ignoring it completely. Prisoners of war creep belly down in the field, seeking sanctuary in the church, with Tudor priests, mice frightened by buzzards, and lugubrious aliens. The scope is endless, and ideas as numerous as buttercups. Our view is our gift.

When November fogs obscure the windows, and the air is thick with germs, we write for 10 minutes, three times a week, fast and furiously. "Write about doughnuts, spiders, moonbeams, stars, motorbikes, fights, fists." The unedited writing lies in rough books, dormant, spellings uncorrected, surfacing when it has to in poems and embellished daydreams.

At Easter, we abandon imagination and stick to facts, grimly battling through curriculum demands. Letters are courteous. "Think about the person, not yourself, in your letter. Ask them about themselves and be polite."

They learn to distinguish between formal and informal language and writing, hone their grammar. But there is always the question, "Please, Mrs King, can't we write a story?"

"In Sats," I say, crossing my fingers, "there's bound to be story writing when you can use your ideas."

Well, this year, there wasn't. I raged as my class subdued their imaginations, dutifully applying themselves to key stage 2 English - a debate on a new timetable for a primary school. I could see neat paragraphs and those relentless conjunctions, furthermore and however, sprinkled liberally across the pages.

And an eyewitness report of a car accident. Amy, whose writing is as large and bold as her heart, introduced her police report thus: "It was a beautiful morning as I walked along the lane. The sun was a golden ball thrown into an azure sky, and the birds were cheeping away like anything."

In the timetable debate, she appealed politely to her audience: "I thank you for your good idea, but it would break my heart to see the little ones getting up so early, and being without their mums and dads."

Will examiners give marks for kindness, politeness and nature notes? I fear not.

As for reading - oh please! Such a let-down after The Lord of the Rings. A particularly gifted child sat with his head in his hands, muttering, "I really hate this." Does it occur to examiners that children may need to escape from the harsh realities all too often surrounding them, such as stroke victims in their own families (one of the questions was about a girl whose grandfather had a stroke)?

What arch-fiend devised such dry debate, political correctness, stupefying dullness? Can they sleep at night knowing that they are treading children's imaginations into the mud? Do we want our nation peopled by dullards? How dare they. I shall divorce myself from English Sats tests. Who's joining me?

Jacky King teaches Years 4, 5 and 6 and is joint deputy head at Charlton Mackrell CE primary school in Somerton, Somerset

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