The RSL’s Education Programme

Maggie Fergusson

Filed under: Schools Outreach

The RSL’s education programme has taken off, carrying leading writers into deprived schools. Maggie Fergusson reports.

When Carol Ann Duffy was 17, she was taken to meet four writers – one of them Margaret Drabble – and to hear them speak about their work. She remembers the day not only for what the writers said, but because, as she recently told Margaret Drabble, ‘you were very nice to me’. Duffy was already an avid reader, had been writing since she was 11, and knew that she wanted to be a poet. Who knows what effect that encounter may have had in boosting her confidence, stiffening her resolve, and encouraging her to follow her star?

The RSL’s education programme, launched last spring in collaboration with the charity First Story, arranges for some of our most distinguished Fellows to visit challenging state secondary schools that might not otherwise have the contacts, the confidence or the coffers to invite them to speak. (‘Challenging’ schools are defined as those in which more than 50 per cent of pupils are considered deprived according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, or in which GCSE results fall in the lowest half of the national distribution.) We hope that, like Carol Ann Duffy, the teenagers we reach in this way will be left believing that books and writers are not remote or aloof or irrelevant to them – but that, in the words of our Vice President Philip Pullman, ‘the whole of English literature, from Beowulf to Byron to Benjamin Zephaniah, is theirs by right of inheritance’. And our experiences to date have shown us that this is not a pipedream.

Fellows who agreed to give up an afternoon to take part in last year’s pilot scheme, and to give workshops in schools in London, Nottingham and Oxford, included Sebastian Faulks, Victoria Glendinning, Tom Stoppard and Colin Thubron. All these have offered to do the same this academic year, and David Almond, Malorie Blackman, Jim Crace, Margaret Drabble, P.D. James, Pankaj Mishra, Andrew Motion and Sara Wheeler have agreed to swell the ranks. (P.D. James, at 92, has volunteered to visit ‘her’ school not just once, but twice: the first time to meet the pupils and recommend some books to them; the second to get to know them better, and see how they’ve enjoyed their reading.)

The three workshops I’ve been to so far have all been remarkable, in very different ways. In June, at Mulberry School for Girls in Whitechapel, Sebastian Faulks confessed to pupils that his own teenage son was a Gameboy junkie, who’d recently challenged him to explain the point of books. Faulks’s response – a passionate exposition of what literature had meant to him – formed the heart of his talk to the Mulberry students. Margaret Drabble won the confidence of pupils at Larkmead School in Abingdon by assuring them that if they simply didn’t like books, they shouldn’t be afraid to say so. She herself had never been musical – ‘so we shouldn’t blame one another for the bits of life we don’t enjoy’. She talked about how her first novel, A Summer Birdcage, had become her close companion ‘at a lonely, dull time in my life’, and she gave pupils the very first airing of her new novel, The Pure Gold Baby, to be published in the autumn.

But, for me, most moving of all was Tom Stoppard’s afternoon in George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs last summer term. It was July, and warm, so his arrival cocooned in a long brown overcoat suggested he was nervous. The expressions of his audience, many half-hidden in hoods and hijabs, were difficult to read. The atmosphere was tense.

Then Stoppard seized the initiative. ‘I’m Tom,’ he said; and lifting the microphone from its stand he began to wander among the pupils. What books had they been reading? And what did they think of them – really? He wanted the truth. If nothing else, he was determined to convince them that their reactions to literature were valid, and valuable.

Never think of ‘writers’ with a capital ‘W’ he told them. Never be ‘dazzled’ by texts just because they’ve made it into print. Above all, never imagine that an author knows what his book is about, and that the reader’s task is to crack his secrets: ‘You are entitled,’ he insisted, ‘to find your own metaphors.’

To illustrate his point, he described what it was like to read reviews of his own plays. Often, he admitted, he is astonished by what critics have discovered in them. It makes him feel like a traveller hauled over by customs officials, who proceed to pull exotic, unfamiliar items out of his luggage. ‘And I have to say to them, “Yup. I agree it’s there. I just don’t remember packing it”.’

He wanted the pupils to feel confident about writing, too. Forget long words and tricky syntax; all that really mattered was ‘the detonating effect of simple language in the right context’. At about their age, he’d been to see The Tempest in the garden of Worcester College, Oxford. As darkness fell, ‘Ariel ran away from us across a lawn, and then across a lake, and finally as he reached the further shore and was subsumed in shadows, a rocket was let off – whoosh – into the night sky.’ All this magic conjured from a two-word stage direction, ‘Exit Ariel’.

Very quickly, Stoppard had his young audience rapt, and bursting with questions. Did he re-work his plays as they moved from page to stage, one girl asked. Yes. He often tweaked a play when he saw where it was going to be performed – ‘if I was staging a play in this room, for example, I’d be immediately excited by the fact that it has four exits’. A tired, down-at-heel school hall seemed suddenly filled with promise.

After his hour was up, he allowed the children to swarm around him, showing him their work, pressing him for advice. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ said thirteen-year-old Connor. ‘It was enthralling to listen to him. He’s really inspired me to keep writing and keep trying.’

Finally, the moment came for a parting shot. Holding the microphone very close, and looking hard at his young audience, Stoppard recited a poem by Christopher Logue – a bracing invitation to them all to be brave, to take risks, to believe in themselves:

Come to the edge.

We might fall.

Come to the edge.

It’s too high!


And they came,

And he pushed,

And they flew.

Related RSL Fellows

Dame Carol Ann Duffy 1999
Sir Tom Stoppard 1972
Dame Margaret Drabble 1973
Dame Margaret Drabble 1973
Sir Tom Stoppard 1972