Why the #247challenge matters

The National Literacy Trust today released new research for National Writing Day, which found that more young people have been writing and reading in lockdown. Following already promising research from the Reading Agency in April, showing that 45% of young people were choosing to read more, it’s really heartening to see a significant increase in the number of children and young people choosing to write stories, poems, letters and journals for pleasure.

The research indicates that this increase during lockdown is because children say they have had more time to write and that writing brings comfort. Two in five children said writing makes them feel better and one in four said writing helps when they feel sad that they can’t see friends and family. Many young people recognise that writing creatively also helps them make sense of the world. These findings chime with our experience at First Story: the charity co-founded by author William Fiennes and teacher Katie Waldegrave to provide high-quality creative writing opportunities for young people in low-income communities, by placing the best UK writing talent in their schools. In the words of one of our young writers, ahead of lockdown: “I am still currently writing, though unfortunately not as frequently as I did before due to the stress and burden of upcoming GCSEs. However, I always come back to writing as a means of comfort.”

As students prepare to go back to the pressure of school, parents, young people and teachers are all concerned about how much education has been lost. Alarmingly, the data shows that the most disadvantaged will have the most to catch up. Young people living in small flats with no access to IT and wifi have had less engagement with online learning.  Some students may have fewer books at home or parents who are less confident about supporting school.

There is mounting concern from teachers and mental health professionals about young people’s wellbeing; many have had a very tough time, separated from friends and family, living under economic pressures and some dealing with bereavement.  Not surprisingly, schools are putting their pupils’ wellbeing first and foremost. The marathon of curriculum catch-up will be much more feasibly run from a starting point of feeling confident, resilient and healthy. 

People turn to stories and poetry in difficult times. Creative writing gives young people voice and agency that they need to be confident. Catching up isn’t only a sprint through missed curriculum, it’s also about rebuilding lost confidence, enjoyment of learning and staying power. Writing for publication does this – sharing ideas, editing, reading aloud, a sense of achievement on publication, all contribute.  A teacher told us: “The First Story group quickly became a supportive community where our students truly felt heard, perhaps for the first time in their school careers. I noticed quiet students who became increasingly confident in sharing their opinion and other students who became more open to discussing their personal thoughts and feelings”.    

We as an industry then need to take this evidence as an impetus to keep up the great work many have been doing to support young people and teachers as they transition back. Over the past few weeks it has been powerful to hear from schools how much they value writers in school. Working face to face with a writer or hearing them talk about their craft is hugely inspiring and exciting for students.  Writers bring a unique energy that is a release for students in a really good way. Getting lost in a good book is restorative and liberating. Reading opens up imagination and creates empathy. Reading and writing for pleasure are going to be more important than ever for young people post-lockdown.

Everyone can write anywhere, and if writers can’t meet students face to face, they can go into a school or home on-line. That’s why today we are asking as many people as possible to take part in our #247challenge to celebrate the power of writing. We're challenging everyone to write 24 words in 7 minutes - lots of people are doing this on Twitter - and the best entries will be showcased online and archived by the British Library. Schools are fired up to take part and we want 24 June to be a great collective moment of writing together.  We really hope everyone working in the industry will join in.

Antonia Byatt has over 30 years' experience in the cultural sector, from leading policy for the literature sector at Arts Council England, to heading arts organisations such as English PEN and the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Creating new ways people enjoy reading and writing is at the heart of all her work. She’s also an experienced trustee, currently of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.