At our launch event for the Ministry of Stories (MoS), held at No 10 Downing Street in November 2010, I overheard the PM, David Cameron, quizzing some of the children that we had brought with us from a Hackney primary school:
“So, first you go to school and do your lessons; and then you go to Ministry of Stories and have fun. Is that right?”
I couldn’t blame him for asking because, at this point, we’d only been open for four days. When I left MoS, the writing and mentoring centre for children in east London that I founded with Lucy Macnab and the writer, Nick Hornby, a few months ago, I realised the thousands of children we’ve worked with since 2010 taught me a few things about writing and creativity.
The first, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that writing can and should be fun, wherever it happens.
I appreciate the concept of writing as a pleasurable activity for children is a tricky one. Many adults, and quite a few professional writers too, see it as the exact opposite. But organisations like MoS often find themselves caught in the false dichotomy inherent in the PM’s question. This implies that “literacy” is a hard skill, therefore important and something that you do at school. “Creative writing”, on the other hand, is a soft one, and so just a “nice to have” and probably best done in your own time. MoS has always seen them as one and the same thing.
And the problem is that when you have so many children who already believe that writing is too hard, too boring and have pretty much given up on it by 8 or even younger, you have to change things up. So what we did at MoS was create a place for writing on the high street. We also created a shop for monsters—Hoxton Street Monster Supplies—on the front of our writing centre so that to find MoS itself you had to find the secret door in the shop. Beyond that door, children could explore any form of writing they enjoyed: from song writing to script writing, graphic novels to gaming. When you make their imaginations possible like this, amazing changes start to happen.
The second lesson is writing can be for everyone. Children coming to the Ministry start to see writing as a everyday, social activity. MoS does this by recruiting every year 250 volunteers as writing mentors, whose main job is to support and encourage. Writing at MoS is a shared endeavour in a safe, creative space—neither home nor school—where the children’s own ideas and imaginations lead the work. Our goal here is not to create professional writers, but to get them to think like writers. Thinking like this and learning through writing builds real skills—problem solving, lateral thinking, how to articulate your thoughts and negotiate your way in a world that will increasingly need these kinds of creative skills in the future.
Author and Ministry of Stories co-founder Nick Hornby with some of its recruits (credit: Yemisi Blake)
Thirdly, better writers make better readers (and citizens!). The fun underpins a serious mission: to build confidence, creativity and attainment. Umutcan, nine-year-old local boy, was brought to MoS by his Turkish-speaking mum. She didn’t feel confident in helping him with his reading and writing in English at home and he was struggling at school. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t our most willing recruit, and his initial attitude towards writing was probably typical of boys of his age. Nevertheless, he got involved in one of our more ambitious projects—the Children’s Republic of Shoreditch—in which children imagined and realised their own country through writing. They wrote its constitution, a national anthem (with dance moves, obviously) and designed and then ran its own Embassy in their holidays. David Cameron received a letter declaring the Republic’s independence and, I’m delighted to report, wrote back a polite, if understandably slightly guarded reply. And something switched on in Umutcan when he was able to reimagine himself as “Agent Shadow”, an operative in the country’s Secret Service. He went on to collaboratively run a writing workshop for adults and, in the process, gave himself the title of “Minister for Smartness”. He also went up two levels in his reading attainment at school—a change that his mum credited MoS with. Supporting better writing supports better reading and vice versa.
Umutcan’s story is neither isolated, nor is it a revelation. Research going back to the '60s demonstrates that when you give children this kind of agency it can have outcomes like this. Leo Tolstoy was teaching children to write in the Russian countryside using similar approaches in the 19th century. Many teachers in our schools appreciate this, but the current pressure to focus on grammar and punctuation, along with shrinking school budgets, often means than anything that looks like “creative writing” and not “literacy” is seen as a non-essential. Just before I left MoS, I even heard that one headteacher had referred to it as “an abstract luxury”.
There are, however, indications that the new Ofsted framework will support a more sensible and creative approach. The fact that Amanda Spielman, the government’s Chief Inspector for Education, attended our Speak Up project in which young people present their own original speeches at Parliament—some of which were about their experience of the education system—was perhaps another encouraging sign.
But my fear is that this change will be too slow. Teachers who advocate more creative ways with writing in the classroom are frequently marginalised and unsupported and too many children are missing out. The Reading for Pleasure Campaign and events like World Book Day have been very successful in promoting reading. We now all need to get behind something similar to promote writing. To this end, over the last few years, a network of organisations across the UK, including MoS, have collaborated on a National Writing Day and are advocating for change. MoS has mentored new organisations like Grimm and Co in Rotherham and Little Green Pig in Brighton to provide it for children in their areas. Their work has already had real impact and our family is growing, but it is still relatively small.
I want all children in the UK to have these kinds of opportunities now. To do this, we need a revolution in the ways children’s writing is nurtured, both in and out of school. Parents need better support in how to encourage children to write more in their own time in ways that their children enjoy. Teachers need to have the freedom in the classroom to use the approaches that have been shown to genuinely build student confidence and ability. Ultimately, we need to believe that writing is not only fun and full of possibility for children, but that it can be one of the most important ways that they can write better futures for themselves.
Ben Payne is a writer, dramaturg and producer, and prior to being co-director of the Ministry of Stories, he was associate director at Birmingham REP Theatre. His new venture will provide creative and strategic support to individuals, charities and businesses, both here in the UK and abroad.
National Writing Day aims to inspire creative writing on a grand scale. National Writing Day welcomes participation from any individual or group, regardless of age, gender, and cultural or economic backgrounds. It takes place this year on Wednesday June 26th and encourages all forms of writing and people to join in via a programme of public, educational and online activities.