Writing on the Wall


It’s not often I get excited about government reports, but the article I read in last Monday’s paper has got me blogging. A report by the Commons’ education select committee criticises the focus on technical aspects of reading and writing that was introduced last year by the schools minister, Nick Gibb. The report said: “The committee is concerned by the emphasis on technical aspects of reading and writing and the diminished focus on composition and creativity at primary school. The committee is not convinced this leads directly to improved writing and calls for the government to reconsider this balance.”

The report goes further, in what is a damning account of what it calls the “high stakes” system of Primary assessment (SATS), but it’s the phrase “diminished focus on composition and creativity” that caught my eye.

I used to be an English teacher, and I’ve always loved writing. Right from the very beginning in the Infants, (in the 1950s) and all the way through my school years, different teachers encouraged my ability and gave me the tools to nurture it. I grew to love grammar and punctuation, to understand parts of speech, to recognise the difference between a main clause and a subordinate clause, to know a simile from a metaphor, to correctly punctuate speech, and to generally follow the road map that took me on my journey of creativity. The wonder of being able to enter my imaginary world and walk through it with another person has stayed with me all my life.

What did I need for this journey? I needed words, obviously, and I found them in books I read and stories I was told; and I needed to know what sounds the letters made when I wrote them down. Actually the wheel of  phonics that we used then was hardly different from the one that has been re-invented, to the sound of great trumpeting and the ker-ching of much cash, in the last 15 years. And the children it didn’t work for then would probably be the same as the ones it doesn’t work for now. But that’s an aside…

I needed to put words together in sentences, so full stops and commas appeared pretty soon; and then paragraphs and soon the magic semi-colon. I needed these things because they helped me to write, and writing is something I wanted to do: my writing was my world, and it was the place I wanted to visit most of all. In all the beauty and wonder that makes up the brain of a child, isn’t it the imagination, that faculty to compose and create, that we possibly cherish more than anything else and whose passing we lament as the demands of adulthood crowd in? Can anything be more important to a child’s education (from Latin roots Ex out and Duco to lead) than the springboard of his or her creativity?

Of course children need to understand the technical aspects of language, but it must be to the extent to which it serves them  in their journey. If we give a child a pair of wheels, a handlebar and saddle, a chain and some brakes, and ask them to learn their various technical attributes, they will soon walk away and look for something better to do. But if put them on a bike and help them to ride, we have started them on a glorious journey that will last for years and go on for many miles. As  they get older and more competent we introduce the gears, we show them how to oil the chain, maintain the brakes, raise the saddle, mend a puncture and the rest. And as they take ownership of the bike, the richer the journey becomes.

So it is with language and writing. Mr Gibb and your army of auditors: will you please get on your bikes,  and let creativity and composition loose in the classroom again.

Bob Hext is author of the Crossbow publication “How to Write Like a Writer“.

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