Let them write and be heard

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Alan Gibbons wants to see children being allowed more freedom to develop their creative writing skills.

FUNNY job, teaching. The moment you get some sort of success doing it, people ask when you're going to give it up.

I'm a primary teacher whose main interest has always been writing. It was teaching writing that turned me into a published writer. The children I've worked with taught me as much as I've taught them.

Last year I won the Blue Peter The Book I Couldn't Put Down award, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, signed a film option for one of my books, saw a short story commissioned for TV and became a Blue Peter Book Awards judge.

Almost everyone winked and said: "So, when do you give up the day job?" Hardly anyone - senior management excepted - said: "This will create real opportunities for your teaching." Which seems odd. After all, if a firefighter does well, you don't ask them when they're going to join the cast of Fireman Sam. So, I'm not going to give up the day job. But - and this is a big but - I plan to do it in quite a different way.

Let me explain why. For some time I have been critical of the National Literacy Strategy:

* from the outset it was too prescriptive (heard the one about the headteacher who bought his staff colour-coded literacy hour clocks?);

* it could easily degenerate into a stale diet of phonics and static comprehensions;

* it could lead to a school year based not around the child's learning but teaching to the test;

* it could squeeze creative writing. I have heard teachers question the need for visiting authors and writing workshops because "the pupils don't need to be creative to get level 4".

Writing results lag far behind reading. Worse still, more than half of boys transfer to secondary education having gained no more than level 3 in writing.

The danger is that writing could be seen as a purely functional activity, and a not very successful one at that.

The point at issue can be seen in an exchange of letters I had with one NLS adviser. To be a good writer, she argued, you need to accumulate skills. Take David Beckham. He had to learn to put spin on the ball, take corners and free kicks, pass and so on. There you go, skills.

I pointed out what all good soccer coaches and teachers know instinctively. Merely accumulating discrete skills doesn't work. It may be functional, but it doesn't excite. It doesn't motivate. The footballer needs to play matches. That's what he wants the skills for, to put them all together to get a result. Similarly, the apprentice writer needs to write and be read. He or she needs to communicate. That's what writing is for. This is particularly true of boys. Bored boys rebel and nothing is more boring than a stodgy fare of grammar and phonics.

Last year my school achieved 100 per cent of children at level 4, with almost half at level 5. We did not just teach to the test. We sustained a varied curriculum with music, drama and sport featuring prominently. And creative writing was central.

We are at a crossroads. Either the teaching of writing becomes rigid, mechanical and dull, or we progress towards something which our students can own and be proud of, a creative written expression of their personalities.

There are some encouraging noises coming from the Government. A creativity task force involving Skellig author David Almond. Also, elements of the Grammar for Writing materials.

In my own authority there is real evidence of joined-up thinking. I am set to work as an author in residence, team-teaching writing in my own and other Knowsley schools at KS2 and KS3, to raise the profile of writing. We hope to put on performances and create anthologies of pupils' work. We will celebrate their achievement.

When it comes to writing we need nothing less than a national crusade in schools, involving writers, teachers and figures from sport and music. High standards and creativity are not mutually exclusive.

Alan Gibbons teaches at Prescot County Primary School. His latest book is 'Julie and Me and Michael Owen Makes Three' (Orion Children's Books pound;4.99)

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