The theory is clear: we inspire children to improve their handwriting by promising the reward of a certificate and being able to write with a pen if they hit the correct level of skill required.
But does it work? I am dubious. I think we need a whole rethink of the seemingly innocent pen licence.
For more on how to develop early handwriting skills, see this Tes Podagogy podcast
The pen licence (usually a photocopied certificate) is used by many primary school teachers to acknowledge a level of handwriting proficiency required for children to be allowed to write in pen, rather than pencil.
The rationale is that the 2014 National Curriculum placed an increased emphasis on handwriting, with neat, joined and legible handwriting becoming a requisite for being judged to be writing at the expected standard for their age range at the end of key stage 2.
Certainly, despite our increasingly digitalised world, the ability to write legibly by hand is still an essential skill. Most formal assessments that pupils undertake in the UK education system are still handwritten.
And you can see how the pen licence makes sense as another tool in the teacher’s arsenal to promote high standards of presentation and legibility.
But what is the real impact?
In the mind of a child, the pen licence can often take on a disproportionate significance; a glaring signifier of those who are deemed good enough, and those who aren’t.
Moreover, it is clearly problematic for dyspraxic and less able-bodied children – some children may never receive a pen licence at all.
In no other area of the curriculum do we restrict access to all but the most able.
While children’s skills inevitably vary widely, we do not restrict access to books or PE equipment.
It is hard to imagine a class in which only those who have mastered grid references are allowed to look at an atlas.
In short, it is unfair, untested as an intervention and, in my experience, it does more harm than good.
And above all else, depending on the design, many children may actually find it easier to write in pen than pencil. We may be denying them the very tool that helps them reach the level we have prescribed.
So what should we be doing?
Exposure, rather than restriction, is generally regarded as a means to encourage and develop skills. The 2014 National Curriculum, which ironically ushered in such enthusiasm for the pen licence, actually states that in Years 5 and 6 children should be “choosing the writing implement that is best suited for a task”.
Neat, joined and legible handwriting is an essential life skill; it is fast, efficient and communicates effectively. In our schools, we should value the importance of good quality presentation and should be encouraging the development of the fine motor skills that lead to legible handwriting from an early age (for more on that, see this podcast from Tes).
The wider curriculum has a crucial role to play in this, as fine motor skills are often best honed through the manipulation of drawing and modelling materials. We should encourage children by allowing them to experiment with a range of tools.
There is a way to encourage success while not stigmatising failure.
Sally Kawagoe is a primary school teacher in the East Midlands. Prior to this, she spent several years teaching in Mexico, Spain and Japan