Two sides, 45 minutes. Get on with it. Detention if you don’t finish. This was my introduction to writing stories at my junior school in west London. Usually, the teacher would write a title for us on the blackboard. “Giraffe”, maybe, or “Lost”. I struggled for an idea, for words, for the confidence to begin, and all the time as I sat there, chewing my pencil, trying to sneak a look at what Belinda next to me was writing, the clock on the wall was ticking away.
In the end, I learned only one thing from this process: how to avoid detention. I learned that if I wrote in really big letters, with lots of punctuation and multiple paragraphs, I could cover the two pages, and get away with it. Mostly, I managed to do so. Sadly, vestiges of this kind of teaching through fear still linger on – in a different way, maybe, but fear all the same – the curriculum exam-driven, the reputations of teachers and schools judged overwhelmingly on the success of children under pressure with the clock ticking.
There is great work going on. The Arvon Foundation brings children out of school to stay and work intensely with writers in one of its centres in the countryside, far away from the distractions and pressures of school and home life. First Story and the Royal Society of Literature, and others, send writers into schools to inspire, to share, to help to give children the confidence they need to begin to write, to discover they can do it, and do it their way.
Later this month, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in London is showing an exhibition around my work and my life. It is travelling down from Seven Stories in Newcastle upon Tyne, which looks after all my manuscripts and papers in its archive, and from these has created an exciting exhibition, which I hope gives young visitors new insights into what it means to be a writer. And from all they see and hear in the exhibition, many will leave thinking: I could do that. I could scribble a story, and illustrate it, too….