Can creative writing boost pupils confidence?

Pupils at Feversham College, Bradford, who are taking part in a project called First Story.
Pupils at Feversham College, Bradford, who are taking part in a project called First Story.
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A literacy scheme is giving pupils a new voice at a faith school tarnished in the fall-out of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal. Sarah Freeman reports.

Normal lessons have finished for the day, but in the library of Feversham College in Bradford, one of the after school clubs is about to start.

Ten or so girls sit around a table and over the course of the next hour and a half the conversation will cover the lyrics of Taylor Swift, ice cream addiction and that occasional burning desire everyone feels sometimes to exact a little revenge.

It’s a typical session in the First Story scheme, set up to improve literacy and boost pupils’ confidence in areas of the country deemed deprived or challenging. The girls are all bright, articulate and funny. None looks like they are lacking in confidence or in need of a male role model. It’s not the picture which was painted of the all-girl Muslim state school, just a couple of miles from Bradford city centre, last year.

While the designated faith school was judged ‘outstanding’ at its last full Ofsted inspection and is regularly among the highest-performing state comprehensives in the country, it found itself tarnished by the fall out from the ‘Trojan Horse’ probe into the strict religious agenda some Muslim schools were attempting to impose on pupils.

The scandal was focused on Birmingham, but as part of a wider look at faith schools the spotlight also turned on Feversham, which was subsequently criticised its lack of male role models – men are only allowed on the premises after normal school hours – and for its recruitment policy which had in the past specified female teaching staff.

Whatever the reality inside the classrooms, to many outsiders the net result of the adverse coverage was Feversham College seemed out of touch with 21st Britain. It wasn’t a picture the school recognised and First Story is just one of the ways that it is giving its pupils a platform and a voice.

The project arranges and pays for acclaimed writers to run creative-writing workshops for students in state schools across the country. Over the course of an academic year, each writer-in-residence leads weekly workshops for a group of up to 21 students. At the end of the year a selection of the students’ writing is professionally published anthology. It sounds simple enough, but those involved in the scheme say the impact has been immense.

“First Story initially launched in London before it was rolled out to Oxford and Nottingham,” says Jess Summers, regional co-ordinator for First Story in Yorkshire. “When I first heard about it, I just knew it was something which could work in Bradford. It focuses on schools in which more than 50 per cent of pupils are considered deprived and/or who fare poorly when it comes to GSCE results compared to the national average.

“Partly it’s about giving the students a chance to really express themselves, but it is wider than that. By developing their imagination and their creativity it feeds back into all their other lessons. Time after time, teachers tell us that the work of those pupils who have taken part in First Story improves right across the board. Being able to express emotions, explore ideas and formulate persuasive arguments are skills they will have for life.”

Back at Feversham College, the students begin by reading pieces inspired by the previous session on the theme of ‘heat’. While in many classrooms asking pupils to read out work aloud would result in reluctant eyes fixed to floor, here they can’t wait. Some have written poems, some have turned to prose, but all have produced work which would be worthy of students a few years their senior.

“I just can’t stop writing now,” says 13-year old-Aisha Aslam, who has an exercise book brimming with possible pieces for the second Feversham College anthology. “I get ideas all the time and I try to jot them down as soon as I can. Once I’ve had an idea I’ll spend quite a lot of time working out what I want to say and how I want to say it.

“I’ve learned that your choice of words is really important as is how you phrase sentences and the impact you can make by repeating certain words. I really love coming to these sessions and what’s really good is that there is a mix of pupils from different classes.

“At first we were a little bit embarrassed about reading out our work because some of it is really personal, but no one minds now because everyone is really supportive.”

The girls at Feversham have been receiving expert help from the performance poet Kate Fox, with the school’s English department embracing the project as a way of engaging their pupils against the backdrop of an often inflexible national curriculum.

“Teachers have to tick so many boxes in order to meet government standards and targets that the one thing which is often lost is that element of creativity,” says the school’s literacy co-ordinator Dianne Excell. “That is what First Story has brought to Feversham. It has given us a platform to really fire these girls’ imaginations and that’s incredibly powerful.”

One of Aisha’s first pieces in her latest notebook is a reflection on the hijab. It talks of how that ‘loose material’ which is pinned to the head each day can mark the wearer out as different and explores the different reactions to those very visible symbols of Muslim culture.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to express how you really feel,” says Aisha. “ But through First Story I’ve become much more confident.”

Since 2008, First Story has helped 2,300 young people write 74,000 stories and poems. Much of that work has been published in 145 anthologies, which are officially launched at each school by the pupils involved and then sold to staff, students and parents.

Aliyah Begum has a copy of the very first book published by Feversham. It’s called aptly Where Thoughts Can Lead and wouldn’t look out of place in the poetry section of any bookshop. The schools hopes to publish its second anthology later this year.

“Before we started First Story I don’t think any of us ever imagined we would have our work published in a book,” says the 14 year old. “That was something other people did, but we did and we are all really proud of what we have achieved.”

Towards the end of last year staff and students from Feversham College represented First Story at a reception at Downing Street, hosted by the writer and wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frances Osborne.

“Number 10 Downing Street is a place they see on the television or hear about on the news,” says Dianne. “But thanks to First Story they got to walk through those doors and into the heart of government. We could only take four of the girls, but it didn’t matter, it had an impact on the whole of the school. It’s events like that which make our young people not only that they are important, but that they can make their voices heard.”

For more details about the project go to www.firststory.org.uk