A narrative gift: Katie Waldegrave on her charity, First Story

Katie Waldegrave

Filed under: Non-fiction

Katie Waldegrave describes how First Story's team of writers is giving new confidence to schoolchildren

‘Creative writing can change people’s lives,’ Mark Haddon says of First Story. ‘I’ve seen it happen. It’s more than learning a skill. It’s about learning that you, your family, your culture and your view of the world are rich and interesting and important, whoever you happen to be. Teenagers are under increasing pressure to tailor their work to exams, and to value themselves in terms of the results. First Story offers young people something else. It helps them find a voice.’

In April 2008, close to 200 people gathered in the library of Cranford Community College, West London to listen to some remarkably powerful stories being read by sixteen sixth-form students. What the audience heard were, in the words of the Daily Telegraph’s reporter, ‘items that were funny, inventive, poignant, irreverent, mischievous and, above all, ambitious’.

The event was the culmination of the pilot project of First Story, an initiative set up in 2007 by myself and William Fiennes (the award-winning author of The Snow Geese). I had been teaching for five years, and was keen that my students at Cranford – a State school – should benefit from the kind of extra-curricular activities offered by private schools. Recently several of my pupils had become the first in their school’s history to win places at Oxbridge, and an important part of that had been things we had done outside the classroom; but I had also discovered that the demands on teachers’ time made it nigh on impossible to provide extra classes of a high quality.

William, meanwhile, had been acting as ‘writer-in-residence’ at the American School In London, an affluent private school based in St John’s Wood. There he had recognised the enormous value of the relationship which can develop between students and an adult who is neither teacher nor parent.

A chance meeting brought the two of us together.  He talked about his experience at the American School and how beneficial it was to the students – and also to him as a writer. As he now puts it: ‘You don’t expect to turn out bestselling authors every week. You hope to help your students express themselves in their own authentic voices, to value their experiences and memories, to be alive to the world around them, to notice more, to treasure the variousness of people and things. You hope to instil the most constructive sort of self-belief. For teenagers especially, these are important gifts.’

As we talked an idea was formed, and we schemed together to come up with a way of offering a similar programme to students in ‘challenging’ schools like mine. The headmaster of my school, Kevin Prunty, was keen, and the resulting workshops soon proved a roaring success. Busy teenagers, despite pressure of studying for exams and the prevailing culture of their school, continued to come back for an hour and a half after classes every single week.

The moment I remember with most pleasure from those early sessions came when a girl named Houda – who had never before had the courage to read aloud – gave a description of a hospital entirely in questions. It was pitch-perfect and powerful. At the end there was silence; Houda looked at her lap. Then the rest of the group burst into applause – Houda raised her head and beamed, and has not looked back since. Her headmaster believes her decision to run for prefect (a position she now holds) to be a direct result of the confidence she has gained through the First Story programme.

Inspired by the students’ enthusiasm, we quickly came to believe the experience was something which could benefit many children in many schools.  We formed a charity. We recruited a board and an advisory board (the latter includes Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Jonathan Dimbleby and Chris Patten) and set about planning and raising money.

Following the model of Dave Eggers’s 826 foundation, which works across the USA, and the Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York, all the students’ work is professionally published at the end of their course. They give a launch party and reading for friends, families, teachers and the local community.

First Story authors are ‘resident’ in a school for a minimum of six months, and build relationships which are important and creatively stimulating for both writer and student. We work with fifteen-to-eighteen-year-olds whose creativity is hobbled by endless exams, and we recruit the very best writers, who are paid for the work they do.

The results have been tremendous.  Kevin Prunty told us of his belief that First Story would have ‘a lasting impact on the individuals and the school. I cannot overstate the enormous feeling of pride – for me as head teacher, for the students themselves, and for their parents.’ Every school, he added, could be enriched by working with First Story.

Zadie Smith agrees: ‘First Story is an inspiring initiative,’ she says. ‘Having attended a school with a lot of talented kids who didn’t always have the opportunity to express that talent, I know what it would have meant to us to have real-life writers taking our stories seriously. And what an opportunity for writers, too, to meet some of the most creative and enthusiastic young people in this country! It’s a joyful project that deserves as much support as we can give it.’

First Story officially launched on 25 September 2008. The day began with one of the students involved, Esther Nicholl, reading on Radio 4’s Todayprogramme. John Humphreys, initially cynical, was full of praise. The day ended with a party at which Bhavin Bhatt of Cranford Community College dazzled an audience which included Sophie Dahl, Lord Adonis and Simon Jenkins. We now have eight writers – Aminatta Forna, Romesh Gunesekera, Helen Simpson, Raffaella Barker, Peter Hobbs, Louisa Young, Frances Wilson and William Fiennes – in eight ‘challenging’ schools across London. These writers work not only with the students but also with their teachers. By September 2009, we hope to have up to twenty residencies under way at schools across the country.

It costs approximately £5,000 to fund the project in one school for a year. We continue, of course, to look for sponsorship and funding, and to establish connections with other organisations whose missions are similar to ours.

Different schools want and get different things from the programme, but all students are given a sanctuary in which to write and read their stories. Here they discover that their voices are valued – and that is the greatest gift we can give.

For more information visit www.firststory.co.uk or contact katie.waldegrave@firststory.co.uk