Jonathan Humble, Features Writer

A View From The Balloon

After two years of floating around in the troposphere, the Dirigible Balloon’s mission continues: to promote poetry written for children, provide a platform for both new and established poets and encourage schools, teachers and pupils to read, write and enjoy more of this wonderful stuff.

With over a thousand quality poems freely available (devoid of pop-up advertisements) from a range of poets which is becoming gratifyingly global (mainly from English speaking countries but we have included poems in Yiddish, Welsh and Māori as well as a smattering of Scots vernacular, Dutch, Russian and Zulu thanks to Michael Rosen, Rhiannon Oliver, Kathryn Dove and David Bleiman), the DB feels like it might be beginning to make an impact.

In truth though, we know we’re only scratching the surface.

The importance of poetry in fostering children’s appreciation of creative language as well as supporting their emotional, spiritual and cognitive development, appears to be lost on so many people with influence in the higher spheres of education.

Heroic work is being done in schools by a growing and highly motivated army of poets and facilitators, the list of excellent writers of children’s poetry has never been so long and varied (you should see the quality of submissions that regularly fill the DB inbox) and yet the latest annual survey from the National Literacy Trust makes depressing reading.

In terms of general enjoyment and reading frequency, trends are showing a decline among youngsters in schools. Fewer than 3 in 10 young people aged 8 to 18 said that they read daily and only 2 in 5 children said they enjoyed reading in their spare time.

How can this be so?

Whenever I work in schools with Wordsworth Grasmere (and drawing on 36 years of teaching in primary schools), I know how positively kids react to and enjoy the reading and writing of poetry. Just watch the engagement of pupils on any video uploaded to websites by visiting poets. The enthusiasm generated during such activities is enormous.

So, what’s it all about?

I have a theory …

Primary schools are hamstrung by the pressures associated with SATs. High stakes testing resulting in data that is the basis of OFSTED inspections, has a negative influence on how the curriculum is delivered. Along with other creative and enjoyable learning experiences, poetry gets sidelined or hijacked for grammar and comprehension exercises which are seen as helping to prepare for these assessment tests.

In my opinion, the solution is simple: abolish SATs at primary level so that teachers can be free to develop a love of literature without the shadow of league tables and special measures affecting planning (accountability in schools can be delivered in much better and accurate ways than relying on tests).

There also needs to be a shift in the visibility of poetry written for children in the media. For example, we have programmes like Poetry Please and The Verb but nothing I am aware of in the mainstream that specifically highlights children’s poetry. The CLPE does sterling work promoting excellent children’s poetry books through the annual CLiPPA award, the associated school shadowing scheme and other work carried out in schools. We need more high profile engagement and competitions like this and others such as The Caterpillar Poetry Prize.

Over at the Dirigible Balloon we try and do our bit to help and highlight the wealth of talent that is so obviously out there. We’ve published an anthology from our web pages called Chasing Clouds: Adventures in a Poetry Balloon in an attempt to raise money for the National Literacy Trust. We’ve also tried to encourage schools to send in work from their pupils so that we might highlight their poems on the DB.

The Balloon, it has to be said, is a small venture in the vast world of literature … but up here skimming the clouds, soaring with eagles and dreaming with poets, we feel enormously privileged.

The view is spectacular and the horizon is the place where we are heading.