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Current Issue 

No. 76: Paper Nations Special Issue

Editorial by Paul Munden

For this edition focusing on Paper Nations, Seraphima Kennedy asked me to provide some background information about the history of creative writing in schools. In truth, such a task feels somewhat ambitious – there’s probably a full book to be written [1]. It does seem important, though, to cast an eye back over the road travelled to date. What have been the significant milestones? And why have some promises not been kept? 

I still have (somewhere) an early Arts Council booklet advertising writers available to work in schools. The list included the likes of Alan Bleasdale and Melvyn Bragg. That seems almost implausible today, but NAWE’s own early directories included David Almond, Ian McMillan, Jane Rogers, Lemn Sissay... I’m not sure how many of those are readily available for work in schools anymore. A problem, here, is in the perception that writers work in schools when that’s the best offer, and when universities, TV programmes and lucrative publishing contracts come beckoning, then work with young people becomes a thing of the past. Thankfully, within NAWE at least, that scenario is held at bay. NAWE patron Andrew Motion, while he was Poet Laureate, continued to work tirelessly in schools, and as Paper Nations makes clear, those with full-time jobs in university teaching and research still make time to develop opportunities for young writers in schools. 

All those years back, there was the wonderfully simple W.H. Smith Writers in Schools scheme run by the Poetry Society. I’m sure many would wish for another scheme of that sort, and it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a substantial benefactor out there somewhere. It’s certainly unlikely that the public arts funding system will ever come up with a scheme to match the young people’s entitlement of which it has so often spoken. I find myself wondering about an equivalent to the Royal Literary Fund Fellowships; a writer attached to every school (ok, local education authority).

One of the most promising “public” schemes was engineered as part of Writing Together, a project that flourished in the heyday of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Not only did Writing Together offer subsidized writer’s visits for schools; it also, with NAWE as a core partner, helped to raise the expectations of what such a visit should entail, and achieve. There was, briefly, a glimmer of recognition within schools that paying for a writer’s visit was something they couldn’t afford to do without. 

The QCA was also, of course, concerned with qualifications, and the Creative Writing A Level became the Holy Grail. The rejection of that qualification by the same government that had approved it according to their own rigorous criteria, is something that many of us still find hard to accept, but there are signs of another counter-movement, evidenced by one of the sessions running at this year’s NAWE Conference. The A Level was of course optional, for 6th formers only, but it might just have broken the mould and validated attention given to creative writing at earlier ages – just as Ken Robinson, for one, would approve. (His TED talk, still doing the rounds on facebook, is compulsive viewing.) If creative writing were seen to “count” from word go, then it would no doubt face less of a struggle to assert its research credentials in higher education (a position well articulated by Julia Prendergast in her report from Australia, p.10). And while I’m mentioning HE, it should be pointed out that HE students arrive to study creative writing on the basis of their primary and secondary schooling; the articles in this edition are therefore every bit as relevant to HE lecturers as they are to those working in schools. 

Given this relentless quest, and with the considerable growth in the understanding of creative practice as a result of creative writing programmes in HE, it is disappointing still to be faced with so many re-invented wheels, and “support” for writers in schools in the form of trivial “top tips”. I’m delighted that Paper Nations has not fallen prey to any such “low grade” thinking. What impresses me is how Paper Nations embraces both emerging writers and writer-facilitators within a “writing ecology”. That’s a phrase I used in the subtitle of Class Writing (2010), not without some criticism at the time, but it’s exactly what NAWE is all about; it’s even there in our title: the association embraces not only writers working (i.e. teaching) in educational contexts (in the very broadest sense) but also those studying there, learning the craft as emerging writers.

Paul Munden

1. A “history” of NAWE (to 2011), “Sharing the art, craft and imagination”, was published in New Writing (Volume 8, Number 3).


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