Sunday, 14 May 2017


This blog follows on neatly from yesterday’s Blog by Sheena Wilkinson, though when I wrote this I had no idea what hers would be about! 

I’ve just been going through a pile of my mother’s old exercise books, dating from the late thirties.  After she died I brought them back with me when we emptied her flat, but I’ve only just got round to looking at them. I was particularly keen to read her English books, to see what sort of work children at the top end of primary schools were expected to do back then.  We hear so much that those were “the good old days” that I was prepared to be impressed.

This is what I found:
As far as neatness was concerned, full marks.
As far as grammar, spelling and punctuation was concerned, full marks.
There were also several famous poems copied out faithfully.
But as far as writing anything creative was concerned, very few marks!

In four English exercise books I found only two pieces of genuinely creative work (ie stories – in those days nobody seemed to consider that children might try to write their own poetry!).  Only two stories which gave rein to the imagination.  I know my mother once said she didn’t have any imagination – maybe it was because she’d been given no chance to develop one.  All the other pieces of work were obviously exercises, probably copied down from the board, or from a book, or factual essays - beautiful to look at, but with no encouragement to be creative. 

I had thought that since we are, theoretically, so much more enlightened today, children would have far more opportunities to produce original creative work.  When I was at school in the sixties, although we were expected to use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, we were also allowed the freedom to write stories about whatever interested us..  And when I was teaching in the late sixties and seventies there was plenty of emphasis on creative work of one sort or another.  Nowadays, however, with all the current emphasis on strange expressions like “fronted adverbials” being apparently essential for passing SATS tests, what space is left for creative work?  Clearly the technical aspects of grammar and spelling now take precedence over everything else.  Of course they are important, but they should help with creative work, not replace it.  This seems to me to be taking a backwards step, rather than looking forward.

My teachers, like Sheena's in her post yesterday, loved their subject and inspired me – but then they weren’t expected to teach to the tests all the time.  Okay, we did have the dreaded 11 plus in my day, but that was all – no SATS tests from age 5 upwards. 

I can’t help remembering a talk I heard once given by a famous children’s writer (I’d better not name her for reasons that will become obvious.)  She said that when she was at primary school her teacher used to come in every Monday morning with a hangover (now you see why I’d better not mention any names!) and said, “Sit down and write a story.”  So every Monday morning the whole class did just that – and she, as a budding writer, absolutely loved it!  (Was it in fact this opportunity that made her into a writer?) Of course one shouldn’t recommend such a way of teaching, and my teachers were way too responsible to behave that way, but I know I’d have loved to spend a whole morning writing a story! 

Of course we can't blame it all on the schools, or on our unbeloved ex-Education Secretary.  There should be time and opportunity for creativity at home, too - and in many cases they do.  But as comedian Jenny Éclair once said, all children should by law have a chance to be bored, because it was out of boredom that inspiration, imagination and creativity came – and I do agree.  How good it would be if after school and during their holidays children no longer had to worry about homework and tests, but instead had time and space to come up with new and creative ideas for amusing themselves.  This would surely be more useful for life, and would give their imaginations a chance to flourish.


Sue Purkiss said...

I actually used to quite like English exams, back in the sixties, because you got 40 minutes or whatever it was to just write an essay, without any interruptions!

Sue Bursztynski said...

When I ask most of my students how they enjoyed the holidays they say they were bored, but not in a good way. They hung around the house doing nothing much or they went to the mall and saw a movie, at best. I don't give homework, except for finishing off stuff that was not completed in class. This should lead to creativity, but it doesn't, alas!

One thing I tried recently in class, when the class was missing kids and term was nearly over, was a round robin. They had to choose one of about three story starters on the board and write for a couple of minutes till I told them to stop. They had to pass on what they had written to the next person and continue the story. After they had done this a few times they had to finish off the stories they had been given. I collected the lot and read them aloud, much to their amusement.

The purpose was to stimulate the writing and make them practise writing speedily without worrying too much about it. They had fun with that, but you can't do it every day. And you can't force kids to be creative if they don't want to be. You just can't. Kids who are creative will find the time. I certainly did. My sister's old exercise books which had lots of gaps between the lines, filled up with my fiction. I didn't do it in class time.

I'm betting that your mother and her classmates listened to their teacher read wonderful classic stories to them. Maybe there was one afternoon a week or a part of the day when the children put away their books and got lost in the world of Alice In Wonderland or Wind In The Willows... That's not something you'd find in her exercise books.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

I loved your post, Lynne! My school exercise books, as well as being full of grammar and comprehension, have weekly stories, poems, and little essays on all sorts of things. I have only one, from when I was twelve, and I bring it on school visits with me. I know that what I loved, others probably hated, and it's true that I filled up many more exercise books at home with my stories. At the end of the school year, we used to be allowed to bring all our exercise books home and I loved tearing out the pages to have more paper to write on. One year the teacher was having a clear out and gave me lots of leftover paper.

As a teacher I tried very hard to give students the chance to be creative, and I know they had a better experience in my class than in many colleagues' -- sorry, ex-colleagues! -- but it became harder and harder as the years went on, and as this coincided with the start of my writing career it became more and more heartbreaking.

Rowena House said...

Lovely that you kept your exercise books. My son brought his home from primary school, but the sheer volume meant I couldn't keep them all. I know some writers make deep connections with their earlier lives via their childhood diaries, but sadly mine too patchy to be any use.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks for such a lovely post xxxx

Lynne Benton said...

Thanks for all your comments, folks! Glad you found it interesting, even if you didn't agree with all of it! Loved the idea of your Round Robin, Sue B - though I think if my mother had listened to loads of great stories at school she'd have mentioned it! (She wasn't really into stories.)