Success Stories

First Story engages professional authors to help improve literacy in the school system

Britain is a wealthy country with a rich literary history and a thriving publishing industry, yet our state-educated children’s reading and writing abilities are mediocre. Independent assessments demonstrate this. Employers confirm it.

Fortunately for the nation’s young, some are unwilling to accept the status quo. Two such people are Katie Waldegrave and William Fiennes, founders of First Story, a charity that pays for professional authors such as Raffaella Barker and Helen Simpson to work once a week as writers-in-residence at under-achieving state schools, defined as those in which 30 per cent or more of the pupils are on free school meals, or where less than half of the GCSE grades obtained are A-C.

The writers help students to publish their work in magazines and anthologies, and arrange open-house events at which they can read their stories aloud to friends, families and teachers. Currently they operate only in London schools, but the popularity of the programme means First Story plans to extend operations to Oxford and select northern cities, with a goal of 20 writers working in schools across the country by September 2009.

Waldegrave is Executive Director. She was a teacher at a community college for five years, where she grew increasingly disenchanted with the lack of time dedicated to extra-curricular activities that could have boosted children’s reading and writing abilities. Fiennes is the best-selling author of The Snow Geese, which won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. He himself runs First Story workshops at Cranford Community College. He and Waldegrave were inspired by the American charity 826, which was set up in San Francisco in 2002 with the goal of assisting local children with their writing skills and getting teachers excited about writing. It proved so successful that it now has sister centres in cities across America.

Waldegrave says both students and writers have found the scheme invigorating and fulfilling: “The children have loved it. On occasion we’ve actually had to kick them out at the end of the day. It’s satisfying to see pupils develop pride and joy in their own stories.”

First Story’s success is best measured in the A-level exam results of children who have taken part: in its 2007-08 pilot group, First Story aimed for 43 per cent of aged 16-18 students achieving B grades, but greatly exceeded this target: 25 per cent of the group got A grades and 28 per cent obtained Bs. This compared favourably to sixth formers who did not take part in First Story: only 9 per cent achieved As and 16 per cent B grades.

Aside from boosting exam results and encouraging students’ passion for writing, First Story aims for students to set up writing groups once the course has ended, and also plans to release annual anthologies of pupils’ work. If the scheme’s success so far is anything to go by, they should be a good read.

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