First Story is a national organisation that supports and inspires creativity across schools by funding authors to run creative-writing workshops in ‘challenging’ educational environments. By challenging, they mean schools where more than 50% of pupils are considered deprived according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index or that their GCSEs results fall in to the lowest third of the national distribution. Currently, First Story has twenty-six residencies at schools in London, Oxford and Nottingham with the intention of eventually expanding into other areas.
This year, seven schools in Nottingham will benefit from this philanthropic initiative. These are: Nottingham Academy (Kevin Fegan) Bulwell Academy (Deborah Stevenson) Nottingham Girls’ Academy (Amanda Whittington) Nottingham Academy (Clare Brown) Children’s Hospital (Mehendra Solanki) Nottingham University Samworth Academy (Graham Lester George) and Ellis Guidlford (Eireann Lorsung).
Although it’s fantastic to see this additional level of support, it's also a little disappointing that seven of our schools should require it in the first place. What is also of interest is how schools are selected. I suspect this is a combination of connections (when isn’t it?) and perhaps most importantly, a student-focussed Head Teacher with aspirations. I mention this as there are plenty of schools in Nottingham conspicuous in their absence who are desperate for a bit of creative TLC. So LeftLion politely requests that First Story consider this while begging Heads at certain schools – you know who you are – to push for their school to be involved.
Katie Lee of First Story said "we have been working with some extraordinary teachers in Nottingham. As a city, Nottingham has a great literary heritage, and enthusiasm for creativity and young talent. The First Story programme, where we place acclaimed writers-in-residence in secondary schools, sits well with that creativity. With their writers, the schools and students have collectively created some incredibly powerful and moving writing in each of the six anthologies published for Nottingham Schools this year.”
Ellis Guildford celebrated their involvement with the publication of their anthology at New Art Exchange on Tuesday 4 July. In introducing the project, a First Story representative said that it was inspirational for children to get a publication under their belt at such a young age, particularly as, she suspected, many of us in the audience could only dream of such things. Author Jon McGregor, poet Matt Welton and Independent journalist James Urquhart, who were sat on the row to my left, didn't blink an eye.
Eireann Lorsung was the writer-in-residence and thanked her students for their courage and commitment. She could quite easily have joked about the experience and pandered to their age but instead gave some impassioned and honest advice. One girl in the row in front of me punched her friend in the arm and started to giggle, finding the integrity of Eireann’s words a little too much to digest, but her friend pushed her away and listened intently, perhaps welcoming being treated as a young adult. Each was issued with a flower, a last attempt to bring colour and beauty into her students’ lives. I noted that one red haired student was carefully selected a beautiful orange flower – these weren’t bought last minute from a garage around the corner. It was also quite an emotional moment for Eireann as she was embarking for a new future in Belgium at 6am the following morning.
The students delivered some excellent readings. My favourite was a piece called Writers’ Block. The bashful teenager explained it had been heavily edited and then stood on stage scratching his chin and fumbling his arms as he tried to muster the words. He said nothing. Genius.
I grew up in Cotgrave during the miners strikes of the eighties and found that reading a book in public was as about as welcome as an invitation to a vegan barbecue. And as for putting pen to paper, forget it. The closest you got to embracing the arts was recording the South Bank Show and watching it when your parents were in bed. It is a real delight then that literature is finally allowed to dare speak its name and that children are given a vehicle of expression other than two hundred laps around the playground. Philip Pullman, himself a former teacher, said: “I know how writing – real writing, not the artificial exercises produced for tests and examinations – can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.” The fact that some of the students who have produced work for the project have gone on to read at the Oxford Literary Festival as well as published on the Granta website is encouraging. But the real validation for this project was the infectious smirks and smiles of the kids performing on stage. If only all spoken word events were like this.