As my last blog testified I’m never sure where I am going or what I’m doing with my life. Whether I’m in the right job is part of my uncertainty. Then I have a day when work is suddenly uplifting and I feel my role fits me like a glove.
In broad brush strokes, my job is to increase the number of children and young people taking part in art and culture in our city – and to work with schools and organisations to make these experiences valuable and relevant.
On the day I’m referring to I was in a meeting with education colleagues about how to inspire children and young people to write a diary. The trigger for this initiative was concern about academic standards in literacy in this city. Test and exam results fall short of those achieved by pupils in other cities with similar demographics and Ofsted is breathing down the necks of school leaders. One of the challenges is that many children start school with lower levels of vocabulary than children in other parts of the country. But where do words come from?
The meeting could have focused on ‘outcomes’ such as better levels and results. Instead, it narrowed down to enjoyment. How can we make learning, and the listening, speaking, reading and writing we develop as as skills and tools for learning, pleasurable for children?
It is experience that triggers in me the undeniable urge to write. Something happens, someone says something, I see or read or hear something, I dream about or feel something…and I want to write about it. It’s an instinctive desire to explore experience through words…maybe to share it, but fundamentally, to simply examine and reflect on what it means.
If we dig deeper beneath the numerical data that shows ‘under-achievement’ in school, it’s clear that many children in parts of the city live in quite insular bubbles that do not offer them a diverse range of cultural experiences. Is it a lack of different places, people, activities, stimulation that makes it difficult to learn new words?
But I think that the main issue is our relationships with children and young people and how we communicate with them. What feels to me like an instinct to write may be partly genetic, but it’s also borne out of the encouragement I’ve had all through my life to express myself. Parents and teachers who listen and are genuinely interested in the stories I want to tell.
Teachers today are under so much pressure to focus on the curriculum and the outcomes and levels they are expected to help children achieve. Subjects are divided up and split off from each other, even though there are links and connections weaving through them that it makes no sense to break.
There is sometimes a lack of time to simply tell stories to children and let them play and imagine in their own space, exploring the way that different subjects and topics interweave and telling or making up their own stories in response. Opportunities to talk, sing and read also open up language. Some children lack this at home (if they have one – over 1000 children in this city are in care and may regularly be moving from one place to another, sometimes up to seven or eight times in just one year). When you are a child living in difficult and stressful circumstances, meaningful one-to-one conversation and consistent relationships can be hard to come by.
Listening and speaking is the foundation for learning – leading on to reading and writing about all subjects. And the foundation for listening and speaking, imagination and ideas, is stories. These can come from within our own heads, but ideas are stimulated by experiences and the culture, community and society around us.
So yes, the privilege of a diverse range of experiences in children’s lives might inhibit their language development and inspiration for writing. I grew up surrounded by books and it was the Diary of Anne Frank that triggered my own diary writing (I wonder how many middle-class girls like me started splurging their thoughts onto paper after reading Anne’s diary – a whole generation I should imagine).
But I think it is the relationships in children’s lives that matter as much as the trips, visits and existence of books at home. The anchor of a committed teacher, youth worker, parent or other significant adult, someone who listens to children’s own experiences and stories and actually cares about them. Someone who is not just rushing from one case load or specification on the curriculum to another, but who encourages play, self-led exploration and experimentation with ideas that spark imagination.
The education system is broken and the pleasure has been sucked out of learning (thanks Gove).
But I’m looking forward to being involved in something that will, if driven by passionate and committed teachers, kindle the imaginations of children and give them a reason to write, not just because they have to, but because they want to.