Two heads and a tale

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Primary and secondary pupils are pooling their talents in a pioneering story-writing project. Geraldine Brennan reports.

A Hollywood scriptwriter trying to get a screenplay past a studio mogul might have understood the outbreak of eve-of-publication nerves at Anthony Gell comprehensive.

When year 9 participants in a creative writing project at the school, near Matlock, Derbyshire, delivered the stories they had been "commissioned" to write by top primary pupils, the atmosphere could not have been more electric at an LA power breakfast.

As well as the excitement generated by the production of new writing, the two-year project has brought a wide range of benefits to Anthony Gell and its eight feeder primaries, all small rural schools.

As the project's halfway point approaches, a trickle-down effect is evident, with the year 9 secondary pupils writing stories for the primaries' year 6 children, who in turn are writing stories for their own infant classes.

Funding from Barclays New Futures, which helps secondary schools set up projects in partnership with their communities, means Anthony Gell has Pounds 8,000 to spend over the two years. This will pay for supply teachers, transport and visits from writers, illustrators and storytellers.

Kathryn Brown, head of English at Anthony Gell, has wanted to build links with the feeder primaries since she came to the school five years ago. She says: "Time and money have always been a problem, but now we can offer resources the individual primaries cannot afford - sessions with outside experts as well as our own time."

Last September Anthony Gell's 100 year 9 pupils split into groups to visit the eight primaries, designing questionnaires to help the year 6 pupils order custom-made stories, which the older children would write. The primary children could specify names of characters - which could include themselves, family members, friends, dogs and babysitters - plot summary and even a desired outcome.

Using the little artistic freedom they had left, the year 9 writers were given a deadline to deliver the finished stories, word-processed, illustrated and bound. Ms Brown says: "We told them the year 6 pupils were their bosses for the duration of the project and they had to stick to the brief. Those who already wrote a great deal had to be strict with themselves.

"We saw rough drafts at some point but mostly they knew they had to deliver and got on with it. They were so enthusiastic and organised, booking their time on the computer, checking facts and reading books aimed at younger children to study styles. There's nothing like having a fixed audience for an incentive. "

Illustrator Martin Wright, writer Gwen Grant and storytellers Rebecca Hancock and Marie Garrison visited Anthony Gell when the stories were under way. The year 9 writers made full use of the experts' advice and, says Ms Brown, "the question-and-answer sessions were overwhelming - there was so much excitement".

Topics mostly covered familiar ground, with the writers indulging their readers' fantasies of footballing glory and Take That concerts, although Vicki Spencer's story for Heather Wain, "Will Heather Save Her Friends?", embraced environmental concerns. The common factor was empathy with the younger child's subject.

Last term Anthony Gell invited the primaries' years 5 and 6 groups to a follow-up workshop with the illustrator, writer and storytellers. This event and the general power-reversal theme of the project helped break the ice for the year 6 children who will be moving on to Anthony Gell in September.

"There will be people they know here, including some they have told what to do," says Ms Brown. "We made sure we didn't send any of our year 9 pupils back to their old primary schools - they had to meet new people. Everyone has benefited, in terms of confidence, oral work, IT skills and reading as well as writing."

By early this term the Anthony Gell team of writers seemed part of the furniture at 45-pupil Brassington primary. The work had moved on a stage, with year 6 writing stories sparked off by the work-shop session. One of Ms Grant's sample titles, "Death at the Fairground", had yielded gory results, including a double-act tale of detectives posing as popcorn sellers, by Terry Dutton and Matthew Pilkington. Using another sample title, "The Box", Thomas Bell based a story around a Pounds 5,000 ransom and an alien called Richard.

Ms Brown's ideas for next year include a joint poetry anthology, and the new year 9 and year 6 will repeat the basic project. The school aims to keep the scheme going in some form when the New Futures money runs out.

Meanwhile, the outgoing year 9 pupils have compiled a checklist of tips for the next batch of writers. "Don't spend too long on the illustrations," is one crucial piece of advice.

Heads of secondary schools, middle schools, sixth-form colleges and secondary-age special schools will receive application forms for Barclays New Futures 1998 awards in the middle of the autumn term. Pounds 1 million a year is awarded in the scheme, developed with community service volunteers. The 1997 winning projects were announced earlier this term

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