Much of my work involves moulding and tweaking other people’s writing into shape. But with R and C, I never fix spelling mistakes or question confusing sentence structures. I never wince when they go off topic, never strike through nonsensical ideas.
R and C are writers – nine and ten-year-old ones – who I’ve been working with at the Ministry of Stories, an east London charity. It’s quite a contrast to my day job, which generally doesn’t involve learning about a monster’s detachable limbs or the newly-discovered land of Japina. Nor does my day job often allow the luxury of focusing entirely on one person and one task.
Talking about the UK education system isn’t very uplifting. Family income and where you live still seem to define how well you’re likely to do at school. In international rankings of reading, maths and science performance among 15- and 16-year-olds, little has improved despite government ambitions to make our schools among the best in the world by 2020. Meanwhile, there’s both a shortage of qualified teachers and a ever-tighter budget squeezes on the schools employing them, with almost two thirds expected to cut one or more teaching posts before September.
But another trend, said Joe Hallgarten, former director of Creative Learning and Development at the Royal Society of Arts — speaking at a recent On Purpose event — is the rise of organisations working outside or with schools. (The Charity Commission for England and Wales, for example, lists some 65,000 registered charities dedicated broadly to young people’s education.) They’re bringing writers and artists and scientists into classrooms. They’re helping kids start a business, or teaching them martial arts or philosophy. And they’re introducing them to modern-world skills like coding — “the new piano lessons”.
At a panel discussion last month about young people and technology, the most telling moment came towards the end, when someone in the audience raised her hand. She worked for an organisation that recruits numerous young volunteers, she told us, and one of the questions they always ask at interviews is: “What are your hobbies?”. For the first time not long ago, a 16-year-old girl had responded: “Going on my phone”.
There was a collective, sharp intake of breath among the audience, most of us of generations who remember life before the Internet. We may be just as attached to endless scrolling, and just as afflicted by powernoia as adolescents; but unlike them, we automatically think that’s a bad thing.