My weekly visits to St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath, have come to an end now that the school year has finished. I’m grateful to Headteacher, Ann Cusack, for inviting me to be Writer in Residence for a year, and to all students and staff who welcomed me to the school community and ensured that I enjoyed a busy, sometimes challenging, always stimulating and extremely happy year.
I’ve used this blog as means of keeping notes about my residency and I’ve tagged all relevant posts #writerinschool which you can use as a search term on this site, if you’d like to read all of my notes. I’ve also copied these posts to my Medium site.
A few people have asked me about how I was funded and whether it’s usual for a school to employ a Writer in Residence. For the latter question, in my experience, it isn’t common, and certainly not in a state school. Increasingly, in the UK state school system, creative subjects, Art, Music, Drama, Design, are shrinking from the curriculum, and with cash-strapped budgets, even occasional author visits are becoming more scarce in some schools. All the more reason to applaud St Gregory’s for their imagination and resourcefulness in setting up my residency.
In his article Creativity can be taught to anyone. So why are we leaving it to private schools? Creative Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, writes that since 2010 there has been a 28% reduction in young people studying creative subjects at GCSE in state schools. This, in large part, can be explained by the introduction of the English baccalaureate, or Ebacc, a school performance measure (introduced by Michael Gove when he was Education Minister) focusing on a core set of academic subjects studied for GCSE which does not include a single creative discipline.
Writers who visit many schools have noticed that increasingly, invitations come from the private sector and not from publicly funded schools. Poet and children’s writer Michael Rosen recently tweeted:
Why is there time for the arts in the top private schools but less and less time for it in the state schools?
— Michael Rosen (@MichaelRosenYes) May 30, 2018
Although I don’t have permission to divulge the financial arrangements of St Gregory’s, or to explain exactly how my residency was funded, I will say that I worked with young people of all ages and abilities (although mostly in the Year 7 to Year 9 age-groups – 11 – 14 year olds): Pupil Premium students; EAL students; Gifted and Talented students; top set, middle set and bottom set students; students not belonging to any group that attracts additional funding and students belonging to several.
I will also say that the fee I was paid by the school amounted to considerably less than the daily rate I usually charge (which is negotiable but about £350 per day). However, I was happy with my fee and it suited me well to have a fixed post for one academic year (especially as I was completing my poetry manuscript for my Nine Arches Press book at the same time) which meant that I saved time and money by not needing to apply for other types of funding or jobs.
My role as Writer in Residence
In school, I ran a Creative Writing Club at Break and Lunchtime once a week, which any student could attend, and I worked with a rota of students who came out of a scheduled English lesson to write with me several times a term. Because of timetabling, some students worked with me more than others and some students never had the opportunity to work with me. No student was forced to work with me if they didn’t want to and if a student particularly wanted to work with me, teachers tried to accommodate this.
As my previous posts document, we read, talked about and wrote poetry, short fiction and short plays in my sessions, but mostly poetry. The brevity of poetry makes it a suitable form to fit into one hour ‘lessons’. As I’ve written about previously, some of my students have been successful in different poetry competitions this year, and have performed their work at literature festivals, and a poetry anthology of students’ work is being produced for publication (by the school) next term.
Other activities I was involved in as Writer in Residence were reading and giving feedback on Personal Statements (for UCAS forms); talking over students’ personal writing projects (thrilled to find poets, novelists, playwrights, short story writers, song writers and graphic novelists at St Greg’s); reading and giving feedback on Creative Writing assignments for English GCSE and ‘A’ level studies; judging in-house writing competitions; circulating information about and submitting work to competitions.
Suggestions about how to fund a writing residency in a school
I’ll end by jotting down some thoughts about how a residency like this could be made possible, should you be a parent, teacher, writer, school governor, or someone interested in setting up a school residency.
My residency came about because I made myself known to Ann Cusack, the Headteacher. Ann was previously a teacher at the school my children attended so I let her know that I was a writer with experience of running writing workshops in schools and community settings. Ann kept my details and stayed in touch. It was a year before she contacted me to say she was interested in seeing if we could come to some kind of working arrangement.
Ann had met me in person and not just via email and this made a big difference. I have, in the past, sent out emails to schools, suggesting that I run workshops or writing events for them, but I haven’t had much luck. On occasion, I’ve approached a school in this way, set up a meeting, handed over pages of ideas for workshops and never heard from the school again. Needless to say, I don’t do this any more!
I’m a member of NAWE and my details are listed with Literature Works, my nearest literature development agency, but it was the personal contact with a decision maker in a school that got me my residency. So, if you’re a writer and want to work in a school, find ways of networking with teachers. Years ago I offered free workshops to local schools to build up my experience so this is one way to start. Talk to teachers about what you do – it’s surprising how few people knew that I was a writer until I mentioned it to them. I’m not J K Rowling, after all! It’s important to let people know what you do and to put the idea of a residency into people’s minds. Even if you’re not a parent yourself, or someone with school age relatives, once you talk to people, you’ll be amazed to discover how many teachers, parents, school governors you might know.
think local but be discerning
Similarly, if you’re a teacher or someone in a school who wants to find a writer for a residency, think local. it makes sense, in terms of costs and practicality, to find a writer who doesn’t live too far away, and don’t just consider ‘famous names’. NAWE and local literature development agencies hold listings of writers and are a place to start looking but also ask parents and students for their contacts and recommendations. I think it’s important to find a writer who understands how schools work and has some experience of them. As well as running workshops in schools, I spent three years working as a Teaching Assistant (and have other teaching experience). My DBS checks are up to date and, as a member of NAWE, I have Public Liability Insurance. I’m also currently writing (a pamphlet published in 2014 and a full collection published in 2018) and published by reputable presses. It’s worth considering all of these things when looking for a resident writer.
I’ll just share a few snippets of feedback from students which show that I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the residency:
Q. How have the writing sessions helped you?
Before now, I never would have been able to express my feelings as well as this. It is my passion and my escape. (Year 9 student).
I now see poetry in a different light. (Year 9 student).
It’s helping me let out my emotions more through writing. (Year 9 student).
They have helped me become more creative and confident. (Year 9 student).
They have helped me with my imagination side because I don’t really get to use my imagination that much and I liked being able to use it and write scripts and things. (Year 8 student).
The sessions have helped me be happy with ideas I think are not good and I have learned how to write plays. (Year 9 student).