The last 18 months haven’t been kind, particularly to young people. The percentage of UK school students eligible for free school meals has risen from 15% to 20% since March 2020, and on top of that they’ve had to cope with online learning, homeschooling, returning to school in bubbles, then being sent home again when required to self-isolate. Many young people have disengaged from education, particularly those whose home circumstances have changed for the worse. Teenagers experiencing disadvantage, already believing further education and fulfilling employment is ‘not for the likes of them’, are giving up what little hope they had.

Whether or not you believe the government’s catch-up funding is enough, to me it’s clear that money alone isn’t going to help already disadvantaged young people re-engage with education, which is the vital first step… this brings me neatly to my new job. Since April 6th I’ve been First Story’s Programme and Partnerships Manager for the East Midlands.

First Story is a marvellous charity established by Katie Waldegrave and William Fiennes in 2008 to promote creative writing among young people experiencing disadvantage, in partnership with secondary schools in low-income areas. We not only give young people the pleasure of writing, but also nurture belief in the validity of their own background and experiences, the ability and desire to express their thoughts and experiences in their own unique voices, the aspiration to fulfil their potential, and the sense of achievement and confidence they need to break out of the cycle of deprivation. Our Young Writers’ Programme (YWP) is designed to enable young people to overcome feelings of lack of entitlement, and there’s plenty of evidence that we help students achieve great things in further education and the world of work.

The YWP is the heart of our offer. Each partner school has a writer-in-residence for a year who works intensively with a core cohort of up to 40 students. This culminates in a professionally published anthology of students’ writing, launched and celebrated by the school. The writer-in-residence also works with the whole school community, nurturing a wider appreciation of the pleasure of writing. We have competitions and events throughout the year, and a range of development opportunities for talented students. Educators are encouraged to take part in whole-school activities and access our top-quality CPD programme. Alongside this we support writers-in-residence to develop and improve their workshop facilitation skills.

It’s been an incredibly difficult year, particularly for schools. Running our YWPs has been a mind-bending logistics exercise. Every school responded to lockdown restrictions differently – some writers delivered their workshops entirely online, others were asked to wait until face-to-face sessions were possible and squeezed all the workshops into one term. We’ve had to run our Young Writers’ Festival, CPD workshops and Summer Residential online, and we haven’t been able to take groups of students to cultural and educational sites for our Regional Connect events.

Despite all these barriers to success, I’ve seen groups of students described as ‘disengaged’ or ‘reluctant learners’ throw themselves into writing in more ways than one. At the end of a long day, they happily get their heads down and concentrate on their writing. That writing is often deeply personal, a shining reflection of their own voices and experiences. I’ve seen young people discover their own power to communicate clearly what’s going on in their lives and their thoughts, and become confident that they are entitled to do so.

One student wrote notes about a recent family death – emotions and thoughts she’d never revealed before. With expert guidance from the writer-in-residence, she developed those notes into an incredible piece which had me in tears when she read it aloud. I could see the pride shining from her face alongside the sadness as she read. Through First Story, she has discovered the ability to communicate how she feels, and ask for the support needed to process her loss. She can carry that ability – one she didn’t know she had, brought out through an activity she enjoys — into her education, career, and relationships, for the rest of her life.

That’s just one example – I’ve seen a nervous autistic student’s broad grin when he won a poetry slam competition, a brilliant sixth-former get a place at Cambridge University, a horde of year 7 students transform magically from a noisy rabble to a group of focused writers, young people talking enthusiastically about their writing, and Young Ambassadors confidently leading whole-school activities for National Writing Day. I’ve visited all our East Midlands partner schools, and without exception I have seen pleasure and inspiration on the faces of students, teachers and writers.

First Story’s work clearly demonstrates the transformative power of creative writing for young people experiencing disadvantage, and I’m proud to be a part of it!