Author: Alan Gibbons, award winning children’s author
Image via Nick Grant
Are you sitting comfortably class? Do you have a pen, laptop or tablet in front of you? (No, Thomas, not that kind of tablet. We know you’ve got hay fever). OK, the objective of this lesson is to write a story with an exposition, development, crisis and resolution, including a metaphor, a simile, at least two fronted adverbials to prove writing one is not just a fluke, some verbs, both transitive and intransitive, those verbs being strong (weak verbs are so yesterday),at least two connectives, oh sorry, conjunctions (the Minister decided they weren’t connectives after all), one piece of dialogue, correctly punctuated, a colon, semi colon and an exclamation mark which must be used only if the sentence begins with how or what. (What’s that, Hermione? Yes, I know Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen and the Brontes don’t agree, but what do they know about writing?)
Oh, and don’t forget that you must never say said because said is banned and if you use it you should be locked up. See the poster on the wall. It says so and there is a nice picture of burglars with black masks to prove it. You must use grunted, exclaimed, declared, intoned or asseverate. When you finish your story, we will review, regurgitate, redress and remind, the four Rs that the caretaker painted on the wall in the corridor yesterday.
Yes, I know, I am being both iconoclastic and caricatural here, but each and every one of the examples above has occurred in real classrooms and been foisted on real teachers and real children in the last few years. All this grotesque nonsense is predicated on the idea that writing can be divorced from the communication of meaning, that it is about form, not content, that it has set, definable, correct and enduring rules that can be learned, transmitted, codified and evaluated by those nice objective people at the Department for Education, none of whom are remotely expert of course because experts are bad and probably part of The Blob, that infuriating, multi-headed Hydra that actually wants to use its multiple brains to examine evidence, peer review it and use it as the basis of educational policy.
The purpose of writing is not to express yourself or experiment with the plasticity and variety of language. It is not to engage with an audience, to draw gasps of surprise, laughter, joy, curiosity, empathy or exhilaration. It is to Write for a Purpose, the purpose being to reach a floor standard, ceiling standard, but not a standard standard because that would be coasting and coasting is bad because it involves standing still when school is about Striving Onward and Upward, which is the new aspirational slogan emblazoned on the board outside Chigmorton Corporate Academy and Free School.
OK, now I know I am an author and probably sympathetic to The Blob, but I was once a teacher in a very good primary school (Ofsted and the league tables said so, so it must be true). We improved our children’s writing by establishing a new library, buying lots of engaging picture books, junior readers and novels. We used what the children read to inspire their writing. Within the context of our writing lessons, we demonstrated features of grammar, syntax and vocabulary without fetishising them or, without evidence, claiming that any particular style or usage was immutable or- oh, perilous claim- correct. Our children were proud of their work and, most importantly, learned to write well because they enjoyed it. I think that is a much better way than the labyrinthine and atheoretical myths manufactured at the DfE, but what do I know, I’m a writer.
Alan Gibbons is an award-winning writer who visits 180 schools a year in the UK and overseas.