I was lucky last week; I got out, and it was fantastic. I went to a live book launch event at Commerce House in Tottenham, London. Commerce House is a Pupil Referral Unit and a group of 15–16-year-old students were celebrating their new anthology, Play Our Song, produced with First Story writer, Ashley Hickson Lovence. Most of the students were boys, many not initially comfortable or used to writing poetry, but they had produced a collection which sang loud in their own voices, and which described their streetwise and often dangerous world; their often witty, often passionate, thoughts and feelings.
Today - National Writing Day 2021 - marks the publication of the National Literacy Trusts’ annual survey, "Children and Young People’s Writing". Some of its key findings echo these students’ experiences: young people write as an outlet for their imagination, to express themselves and, particularly over the last year, to feel happy, confident or relaxed. The survey also tracks how young people are writing, and not surprisingly, the formats and technology are changing. There's more writing onscreen, more short messages – texts or in-game – as a way of communicating and connecting with other people; essentially, an increase in writing as conversation, rather than as a poem, diary or story. More alarming is the decrease in young people who are writing regularly and enjoying it, particularly boys.
Are we bringing up a generation of young people who won’t see the value of writing as a creative process? And if so, what will we lose?
The previous NLT survey in 2020 had bucked a downward trend of young people enjoying writing. The survey took place towards the end of the first lockdown, so being out of school was topmost in people’s minds. Many had more time to write and that was a big factor, with one student noting: “I am enjoying it more because when I am writing I have had more time to think about what I am going to write.” Being weighed down with tasks and schoolwork was off-putting: “I enjoy writing less than before because before I could write my own poems and stuff that I like, but now I don't get time to write my own stuff.” Children and young people want the time to write thoroughly and deeply. They enjoy thinking like writers rather than doing writing tasks. What matters to them is using their imaginations and expressing themselves, and with that comes a sense of identity and more confidence.
In England we have been rightly concerned with the need to catch up on missed learning during the pandemic. But we must also be mindful that packed school days and curricula can push out the time and space to think creatively. The OECD which runs PISA, a global survey of attainment in education, thinks creativity needs higher value. It is introducing a Creative Thinking framework for 2022. "Creative thinking can have a positive influence on students’ academic interest and achievement, identity and socio-economic development," the OECD argues. Written expression is a central pillar of PISA’s new creative framework "supporting the interpretation of experiences, action and events in novel and personally meaningful ways." It is about the power of generating original ideas and putting them to use. The next generation needs this ability more than ever to adapt and contribute to a fast-changing world. Of course, not every young person wants to (or should!) be a writer, but these ways of thinking are important for their future, whatever it is. Creative industries rely on original ideas and creative thinkers. Those of us that work in them should be demanding that our education system doesn’t stunt originality and new ways of thinking in the next generation.
For me, it’s about social justice too. At First Story we say, ‘your voice is powerful’. Good writing always has a unique and strong voice at its centre and there are many more new voices to be heard. Through good writing we see the world differently or afresh. If we don’t support ways to spark young people’s interest and passion when they write, we will lose the diverse voices publishers have worked so hard recently to launch and celebrate. If there isn’t time to write deeply as a creative process, to interrogate the worlds we come from, people won’t have the chance to experience the rigor and challenge of that kind of thought. They won’t understand that writing is difficult and hard but that it is also hugely rewarding and enriching.
So, what can we do? Young people should have access to writers and artists’ ways of thinking and working – through reading their books, meeting and talking with them and through working alongside them in the classroom. Teachers and headteachers can work with publishers and literacy charities to make that happen. It is crucial that these opportunities are available to the young people who might be least likely to get those chances. Finally, the government needs to value creative education more and embrace new thinking such as the OECD’s. It is part of the rounded approach the newly appointed commissioner for curriculum recovery, Sir Kevan Collins, was suggesting. Until he resigned….
Antonia Byatt is the c.e.o. of First Story, the UK's leading creative writing charity. Antonia 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.