Oxbridge? Don't write us off

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
Published authors are passing on their skills to pupils at an inner- city school as part of a social-mobility initiative aimed at encouraging applications to elite universities

Feyna Skylar is jumping out of a window. The window - lest we be in any doubt as to Feyna's bravery or stamina - is quite high up.

"The summer breeze was rejuvenating, reawakening her soul," reads 14-year- old Kheiran Ponteen. "She landed with enough force to break a man's leg, but Fey was oblivious to this."

There is a round of applause in the classroom. Then: "I really liked the little details: `rejuvenated her soul'," says one boy. "I liked the breeze."

"I can actually imagine that happening," says another. "It's very easy for us to grasp in our minds."

Kheiran and his four Year 10 classmates attend Central Foundation Boys' School, on the edge of the City of London. The school's inner-city pupils are mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. They speak 34 different first languages between them, and more than 70 per cent of them will claim free school meals at some point. And, every Monday after school, a growing number of them gather in a classroom to write stories.

After a period of concerted writing, the boys read out what they have written, offering feedback on one another's work. These discussions are overseen by published authors Stephanie Williams and Sarah Glazer.

"The idea of teenage boys." says Williams, with a slight shudder. "My kids are grown up; I'm out of touch. At the first sessions, getting them to read aloud what they'd written - they were shy, hesitant. But, actually, they were really intrigued by the fact that I'm a professional writer."

She began the first session by bringing in a copy of her own book, Running the Show, a history of the governors who ran the British Empire. Initially, she simply talked about being a writer. It was the boys themselves who suggested that they might try writing, too. "So many of these boys are hungry for an outlet," she says. "What I offered them was a chance to say what they really think and what they really feel."

Creative writing has long been the madwoman in the English-staffroom attic, confined to the furthest reaches of the syllabus. Last summer, however, the exam board AQA announced that it had received accreditation for a new creative writing A level. Teaching for the course will begin in September.

The Central Foundation boys are currently working on their entries to a short-story competition, which AQA is holding for 14- to 19-year-olds in the run-up to the launch of the new exam. The only requirement is that the stories, of not more than 2,000 words, must involve an adventure.

Once everyone has offered feedback on Kheiran's work, it is Andrew Miller's turn to read from his adventure story. "My ethnicity is very complicated and exists in many realms," the 15-year-old reads. "My grandfather is from Anihc" - a pause - "you guys need to read it, because that's China backwards." He goes back to his story: "And my grandmother is from Aidni - that's India backwards."

"Fantastic prologue," Kheiran says, when Andrew finishes. "However, you didn't really explain the idea of realms. Why China backwards?"

Andrew looks down at his work. "I was trying to be clever. Though obviously that didn't."

Williams nods. "Sometimes you have to work an idea through."

When the group was established last year, the boys' initial reactions were varied. Fourteen-year-old Ade Omiye was not particularly interested in creative writing. But his father had wanted him to join an after-school club, and this one seemed the least unappealing.

Omar Aadan, meanwhile, had recently entered a debating competition, in which he and his classmates were pitted against teenagers from top independent schools.

"They were so sophisticated, even when they spoke normally," he says. "It was hard to hear, because they were in a different league. Though we won, which does stick up Eton's." He catches himself here.

"I actually just like writing, because it shows I go against my stereotype. I'm not just a teenager who listens to music. I read Charles Dickens and things. I'm capable of writing as well as those people who go to private schools."

`Opportunity to express themselves'

The Central Foundation scheme is overseen by The Access Project, a social- mobility initiative that aims to give inner-city pupils the confidence and skills necessary to apply to top universities. Part of the appeal of this particular club, says Reanna Keer-Keer, Access Project coordinator for Central, is that it requires remarkably few resources. Rather than being reliant on gadgetry or technology, it depends solely on the interaction between the authors and the boys.

"It's about bringing them together, and about the strength of what they do when they come together," she says. "It's about having the opportunity to express themselves, but in a controlled way. The potential is there. It's about having the person who encourages them, and the space and time to do it."

Andrew, meanwhile, attributes his membership of the group to an overactive imagination. Before the group existed, he says, his efforts to express himself simply landed him in the detention suite.

Across the table, Kheiran raises himself in his seat. "I, too, wielded an over-imaginative being," he says. "I heard legends of this group and my curiosity led me to this room. The fact that we could write on paper and it wasn't restricted, like in class, where you're told to write about dogs and cats, or write about Lenny and Curly's relationship. It was just: write whatever's in your mind. I thought that was amazing."

This same point is repeated by all the adults involved. "This is a space where you can get feedback, but not with an end goal," says Martha Laybourne, the boys' English teacher. "They're not being assessed. It's an environment in which they're never given a grade.

"As an English teacher, you're always teaching them to write in specific ways. Sometimes you have to be a little didactic and look towards specific assessment objectives. That's not present in the club."

The club also offers the opportunity to work on an extended piece of writing, added to and improved over weeks and months. "You can't just write for six weeks in class," Laybourne says.

It is Ade's turn to read out his story. "A man stepped out of the shadows," he begins. "Bob paid him no attention and kept on walking. The man stepped in front of him. Bob thought he was wearing a black mask. Then he realised that it was his skin."

At this point, the other boys start laughing. One swings on his chair; another puts his head on the desk and giggles. "I think that you were trying to make it dark and serious but I found it funny," says 15-year-old Jason Mayala.

"They're inside jokes," adds Andrew. "That could be a positive, but it could also be a negative, because think about the other people who are going to read it."

Keer-Keer nods. "He's incorporated an element of humour in what's actually a very dark scene. Bringing in humour, but in the way that Andrew says - in a way that all your readers will understand - can be a good thing."

A safe place to air ideas

During the first club meetings, Williams wrote alongside the pupils, offering up her own pieces of work for their opinions and criticism. The aim was to show that every writer can gain from reader feedback. "It's a safe place," she says. "Nothing is wrong. Your ideas are your own and you're entitled to them. I think that that freedom is something they don't have elsewhere."

Unlike teachers, the boys come to one another's work with no contextual knowledge. They are blank-slate readers, primed to fall into gaps in a narrative. "I had lots of ideas and I wanted people to be able to judge them," says Jason. "To see if they were anything of value, or just gibberish."

This is echoed by 14-year-old Omar. "You're going to get a mixed critique and people are going to react different," he says. "Perhaps you already know what you're doing well - if you're using irony and sarcasm. But you want other people to acknowledge it."

Now Omar opens his own exercise book and begins to read: "There lived a young boy, encapsulated in a brilliant illusion of innocence. This is a tale that will wrench your heart out of its designated socket."

"Your story had an authentic feel to it," says Jason, when Omar has finished reading. "You write for someone who's not your age. You use good verbs. You have a very old, mature writing style, and I think that's your greatest asset."

"Simply amazing," Kheiran adds. "Forged in the heavens. You utilised a wide set of vocabulary not usually used for our age group. But obviously some of us are able to comprehend such words."

All the boys have a tendency to speak as though they have just conducted a smash-and-grab raid on a thesaurus. But Omar and Kheiran have devoted particular attention to enhancing their linguistic capabilities. "You're not just against your friends in the world," Omar says. "You're against different people who paid for their education. I thought that if I write consistently, then I'd be able to incorporate that in my daily speech, and that would help."

"A lot of boys here are multicultural," says Laybourne. "Being able to express themselves in English is a significant achievement for them. To learn vocabulary and phrasing. For that to be part of their identity is a significant thing."

Three of the boys say that they would like to have a book published ("for the sole purpose of my CV", says Kheiran). Andrew wants to write film scripts: "What I really want to do is film-producing and editing. But I don't have the money to get those big cameras on tripods and tracks. The next best thing I can do is writing, and maybe one day that can be a film." That leaves only Ade, who simply shrugs and says: "Nah."

"When you read your favourite writers, you think: it's so amazing. How could one human think of this?" says Omar. "How can you ever replicate it? They're sort of your inspiration and you want to get as close as you can to the epitome of mastery." He pauses. "Also, it looks good on your Cambridge application if you have a book published."

Talk to the authors

TES is organising a series of webchats with three renowned children's authors to mark this year's World Book Day which takes place on 7 March.

Tony Robinson - perhaps best known as Baldrick from Blackadder and as the presenter of Channel 4's Time Team - will take part in a discussion on the day itself, while the popular author Malorie Blackman and radio DJ-turned-children's-writer Simon Mayo will be doing likewise in the build-up. These conversations will be open to you and your class to ask live questions.

TES has created a special web page for these chats, complete with classroom resources to use in the run-up to the big day. For details, go to www.tes.co.ukworldbookday.

Photo: The boys in Central Foundation creative writing club. Photo credit: Alys Tomlinson

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