The headteacher column with Pocklington School’s Mark Ronan

Pocklington School headmaster Mark Ronan.
Pocklington School headmaster Mark Ronan.

Children who enjoy reading and writing are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who don’t. Children who write for fun are seven times more likely to write above the expected level for their age.

These findings of two recent report support what teachers at Pocklington Prep School firmly believe: that children who can express themselves freely through writing, rather than following a prescriptive learning pattern, are happier and make more progress.

Writing empowers children and sparks their imagination.

Writing empowers children and sparks their imagination.

It’s one of the reasons we don’t enter our children for SATs, the formal measure of attainment which have been criticised for imposing constricted learning on pupils at a time when progress should be fuelled by their instinctive curiosity and imagination.

Dialogue and drama are far more effective at improving children’s grasp of language than formal grammar lessons and worksheets. A theme-based, cross-curriculum approach to learning plays into this because children aren’t just taught about a topic, they experience it.

So our pupils’ study of the past tense might link to the history topic of queen Boudica, for example. Classes might involve role play in Celtic cloaks, or a trip to Murton Park’s living history site to experience life under the occupying Roman forces.

This prompts discussions about what it must have felt like to be Boudica, or a Roman soldier, which inspires enthusiasm and focus. Children rush to take up their pencils and capture their recollections, unconsciously observing the past tense as they do so.

By living and breathing the characters or experience they’re studying, with the time and space to express themselves, children think creatively, grow in confidence and thrive.

Children are given every opportunity to read and experience good quality texts from experienced authors as part of every topic. Texts are carefully chosen to prompt discussion, reflection and imaginative thought, so pupils are inspired to take their learning further.

The outcomes suggest our approach is right. This summer 64% of state sector pupils met the expected standard in writing, reading and maths combined. At Pocklington Prep School, the figure was 84% of pupils.

Our teachers have the freedom to be flexible and scrap a lesson plan to explore a subject that obviously captures children’s imagination. When tornadoes were in the news recently, pupils researched and then wrote about them. An impromptu classroom discussion about recycled coffee cups led to one class writing letters to Sainsbury’s.

A recent cross-year-group exercise saw Year 6 pupils write a story for the Year 2s. After pairing up, the younger children briefed the older ones about characters they’d invented during role play, as well as themes which interested them. The Year 6s took notes before writing the first draft of a story then, after critical feedback from the Year 2s, returned with second drafts accompanied by computer illustrations.

The exercise benefited the Year 6s as they had an audience and a powerful sense of purpose. The Year 2s learnt a great deal about language and communication, and grew in confidence by taking on the leading role.

We believe the best way to encourage children to read and write well is to empower them with the freedom to look away from the whiteboard and be inspired by their surroundings, their peers and, most important of all, their own imaginations.