It is a quite a coincidence that National Writing Day is my first day in the job as CEO of First Story, the lead organisation behind the campaign. When I tell people I will be working in an organisation that places writers in secondary schools serving low-income communities in England to work with students on their creative writing, the common response is ‘What a brilliant thing to do’.
Writing well has never been more important. In the age of the Internet everyone is a writer. We tweet, we blog, we post, we write copy, we create games, some of us write novels, memoirs, poetry. Writing well in shorter forms has its own challenges. On-line platforms can be a wild west of opinion and comment that young people need to understand, manage and sometimes defend themselves from. It also opens up a huge potential audience for their stories and ideas.
We all need to know how to write well in this new landscape. New distribution networks make it easier to self-publish and the publishing industry is opening out to more diverse voices. There has been an exponential rise in creative writing in universities. Poetry and spoken word have reached new audiences through artists like Loyle Carner and Akala and have a strong place in youth culture. Since Chaucer and Shakespeare, England has been a country of incredible writers –most recently young women playwrights such as author of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller Bridge, and Lucy Kirkwood, creator of Chimerica, keep us firmly on the map as a creative country.
Communicating through writing is at the core of contemporary culture. Yet in the curriculum the emphasis is on learning the tool kit – grammar, punctuation, editing – without the sense of where you can really go with it. Learning how to use your voice is incredibly powerful. It is not that reading isn’t really important – it gives people access to information and ideas. So, while it is no surprise that our education system gives it such high value, it is often at the cost of emphasising the importance of writing as the thing behind all reading.
I remember the National Year of Reading in 2008 – a huge investment by the then Department of Education. There has never been anything like that for writing until 2017 when the first National Writing Day was held. But writing gives young people their own means to inspire. The confidence they gain from finding their voice, finding their imagination, means they can really fly.
The Arts Council’s recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that arts and culture contribute more to the UK economy than agriculture. Creative writing is at the heart of many of these sectors from publishing to screen to live theatre. All the arts organisations and charities First Story collaborates with for National Writing Day bring the value of imaginative content to the curriculum. The programmes they provide broaden out the curriculum and, through the writers and artists they work with, introduce new and exciting ways of seeing things. Students learn how to take risks with language to use it more powerfully.
Like many other ‘days’ such as World Press Freedom day, Giving Tuesday, World Book day, National Writing Day gains its power from the number and range of people who take part in it. It illustrates how powerful the arts and education sectors are when they work together. All our partners add richness to young people’s experience of the curriculum. They bring real joy to learning. And we know motivated people learn best.
I love First Story because its residencies in schools have shown me how writing really does change lives. We all know our life chances are considerably affected if we can’t write, but how much more are they enhanced if we have had the opportunity to really think about what we want to say and find creative ways to say it?
The thing about writing in schools is it brings benefits to more people than the particular group of students involved in a residency. Theresa Cremin’s research project, Teachers as Writers, offered teachers opportunities to write and build relationships with professional writers. It was found to enhance student achievement in writing, and also teachers’ practice improved. Arts organisations’ interventions reach teachers as well as students through CPD and other processes. For some teachers working with First Story it goes further, as they have published novels. A creative writing project brings pride to the whole school; it models improved confidence for students as well as offering new horizons through publication in anthologies or performances on stages and media platforms which bring pride to the whole school community.
As the lead organisation in National Writing Day, we are particularly keen to present real evidence that creative writing changes lives. We work with all the other organisations – Arvon, Ministry of Stories, National Literacy Trust – to develop appropriate evaluation. Our challenge is that writing attainment in the curriculum uses such different criteria. Creative writing is often about breaking the rules – though you have to know them to break them.
We know there are huge challenges in adding something additional to a crowded school day and a demanding curriculum. But giving young people their voice can never be taken away. And too many people in England at the moment feel they don’t have a voice, at least not one that is valued or listened to.