Developing Writing

City of Liverpool College and Hopwood Hall College

This project aimed to challenge the stereotype of male learners not engaging in the process of creative writing, by removing the constraints of the old exam style pedagogy and instead introducing an alternative and encouraging environment to express thought, feelings and build confidence through the written word. We learned that creative writing which is not teacher assessed can break down barriers to young males’ expression.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Two English tutors from the City of Liverpool College and Hopwood Hall College (both providers of further education with predominantly vocational courses) collaborated to develop a new approach to creative writing, where the process was entirely led by the learners. The project was rolled out to groups of largely male GCSE English resit learners, aged 16-19, studying typically male dominated vocational courses at college (for example: motor vehicle, construction trades and gaming).

Traditionally, these learners were reluctant to express their creativity, both verbally and in writing, and learners saw this as an area of study from which they could disengage, given that these skills were not conventionally something that boys could, would or should excel at. In many cases, this belief is carried from childhood, throughout schooldays and into the workplace and adulthood. In his research, ‘Gender and Literacy: Improving Boys’ Writing’, Robin Lane refers to an HMI Ofsted report, where good practice has been identified in schools where ‘pupils are often given choice as to the content of their writing, even when the form or genre is prescribed… efforts are made to make writing tasks purposeful, through seeking ‘real’ audiences, through publication and display, and through the use of writing to support throughout’. In the same report, he states that the impact of ‘opportunities to write frequently’ resulted in the following impact:

  • ‘Increased stamina for writing and also improved transcription
  • Boys who wrote very little began to take risks and write more.
  • Boys who were unenthusiastic about writing became engaged in their writing.
  • Boys who had “loads of ideas” began to control their writing.’

We wanted to unlock the learners’ potential using a completely different approach, and we were committed to de-bunking the myth of working-class low aspiration and the deficit model of male achievement.


Historically, this group of predominantly teenage boys from diverse cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds struggled to engage in creative writing of any sort. The learners have, generally, a limited vocabulary, poor spelling and grammar, sometimes gaps in education, learning disabilities and difficulties, as well as, in some cases English as an additional language. This all leads to a lack in confidence in putting pen to paper and a feeling of disenfranchisement and that writing is not seen as relevant to their lives and futures. These young men feel they have nothing of value to say and that they have no tools or ability to say anything even if they could, making the task of writing overwhelming.

The challenges already identified within this group have significant consequences, both in terms of oracy, literacy and confidence, which will impact inevitably on behaviour, progress, mental health and wellbeing. We wanted to establish an atmosphere where creative thought could be safely explored and developed.

The introduction of the study programme and compulsory studies in English and maths has been and still is problematic in the sector, given that few learners see the relevance or importance of these subjects, especially when they do not plan to access higher education. In Jo Ireland’s research paper (Ireland, 2019), both teacher and peer support are found to support learner motivation: ‘They suggested that both peer cooperation and group interaction can increase positive perceptions of learning and educational achievement’. She further states that learners feel they benefit from smaller group sizes as this gives them easier access to support.



Images of written work

Written work exchanged with Liverpool City College. This was after a period of national lockdown and the learners had not been in class for almost 3 months.

In order to push the boundaries of the stereotypes referred to above, we planned the project within the following framework:

  • Learners to create writing prompts on any subject of their choice which would be shared with the partner college.
  • The tutors to share the prompts with learners and the partner college learners to write creative responses – with no scaffolding but only the prompt supplied.
  • The tutors to scan the writing produced back to the partner college and the reciprocating learners to review it, giving feedback without referring to traditional spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) or exam board grades and mark schemes.
  • Learners to then either continue with the piece of writing started by a peer at a different college, or to start afresh with a new prompt.

As the project developed, we were faced with the following challenges:

  • Heavily disrupted, or lost learning because of the impact of COVID-19, including a second lockdown from January 2021
  • Digital poverty, which affected engagement
  • Poor engagement from learners who had taken a resit in November and were waiting for the publication of their results.
  • Issues around the content of what was written: there was some inappropriacy of content in football related matters and a distinct level of animosity in some cases. To prevent this from becoming an issue for safeguarding teams and to reduce a potential build-up of animosity we adapted our approach and respective tutors held discussions with the groups to remind them of the aims of the project, and ask them to reframe their expectations. This presented an opportunity to discuss tolerance and respect as a life skill.

Tutors from both colleges were in regular contact and the framework for the project was revisited and adapted with the guidance of the project mentor. Adaptations included onboarding another English tutor at Hopwood Hall College from January 2021. We also integrated the use of other prompts for learners, including visual prompts such as artwork and paintings, as well as audio prompts such as pieces of music.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The writing sessions were delivered at the end of a 90-minute GCSE session which was already timetabled.

In line with the ETF’s Professional Standards (2014), the project tutors embraced the following approaches:

  • Motivating and inspiring learners to develop their skills, many of which were already there. Through a coaching and mentoring approach, (particularly using Hawkins’ (2007) CLEAR model: a clear understanding, listening, exploring, action and review) tutors were able to support the learners to make explicit what in many cases they already knew implicitly, but had been disinclined to reveal previously
  • Offering learners the choice to select the pace and style of their learning with creative writing in order to enable the learners to build on the skills they already had.
  • Valuing equality of opportunity to all learners in the groups, which meant expanding the project to two female learners for a period of time (see Appendix 2).
  • Tutors critically reflecting together and evaluating the impact of the creative writing activities on the dynamics of the classroom and the changes in the way the learners worked.
  • Feedback was peer to peer with no written teacher feedback and stimulus prompts often produced by learners for other learners.

Further research materials were accessed to support the project, namely through the issues raised in the book ‘Boys Don’t Try’ (Pinkett and Roberts, 2019) and the statistically shocking evidence that boys in schools in the UK are struggling because of a range of issues including anxiety, low achievement (or low self-belief in the ability to achieve), behaviour, bullying, increasing mental health issues, sexist attitudes and an inability to express emotions. Inevitably, this problem spills over into the experience they have in further education.

Additionally, an increased awareness of the connection between the vulnerability created in the process of creative writing exposed a real need to reduce the stigma male learners feel when faced with an activity which may reveal, or lay bare, their emotions. On this basis, the Hopwood tutor signed up for a mental health first aid qualification to be able to better support learners.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

It is no secret that that the multi-faceted process of creative writing can lead to deep revelations and disclosures about the writer. As detailed above, some of the work produced by learners was of a very personal nature and therefore close attention was paid to pastoral, safeguarding and welfare issues raised. Swift and effective referrals were made in such cases as these.

In some cases, writing showed signs of aggression, hostility and acrimony. Tutors at both colleges responded appropriately to this and engaged with each other and the relevant support networks at the respective colleges. This again reflected the negative connections some learners associated with the process of writing and needed to be handled in an understanding, sensitive and trauma-informed way, with the intention of ‘repairing’ rather than ‘punishing’ learners’ choices and practices. In discussions with learners about tolerance and acceptance of others, we found that young males appeared to feel that they needed to conform to a stereotype, where aggression based on perceived rivalries between their home-towns or cities or allegiance to football teams. In discussions with them about their choice of tone and language in their writing, we started to explore the possible reasons why. In most cases, they had not considered or reflected on this previously and once they had, they changed their approach. Tutors spoke about celebrating equality and diversity rather than seeing it as a threat.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Eliminating the process of correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar in learners’ written work removed the immediate barrier of learners believing that their work was of a poor quality and released inhibitions caused by this. Almost all learners involved in the project expressed negative connotations of receiving marked work from their schooldays which was heavily corrected on technical skills and lacked encouragement for, and development of, creative skills.

The announcement of the cancellation of summer 2021 GCSE exams in January left many learners assuming that a notional grade would be submitted by the college (as in 2020). However, when it was communicated that there would be a series of assessments, including one with an option of creative writing, engagement and attendance increased significantly. At Hopwood Hall College, out of fifteen learners who attended the final GCSE assessments which took place instead of exams, seven took the creative writing option. Of these, all have achieved a percentage which, if upheld by the awarding body, will represent a grade four or above. This is very encouraging when we consider that the percentage of learners achieving a grade four or above for this vocational area in the last exam series in 2019 was 34%.

At the City of Liverpool college,16 learners in a group of twenty-one achieved a grade 4 or above in the Creative Writing assessment in May 2021. This assessment has been used towards the final Teacher Assessed Grades this year. Comparing this result to an assessment in December on Creative Writing over 60% of learners have improved their overall marks in a creative writing assessment. This has been very encouraging for us as a college, as we have seen as vast improvement within this group of writing skills. We have also seen an improvement of overall confidence with regards to Creative writing (see Appendix 3).

Learning from this project

Boys do try.
Understanding prior barriers to writing or experiences and breaking them down by staging an approach to the process helps to release the often hesitant, sometimes unenthusiastic and reluctant response from teenage male learners with creative writing.

They know much more than they often admit to.
Once these barriers are addressed and the process of removing them begins, the tutor can see the skills learners often keep hidden.

Ditch the SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) focus
Removing an English tutor’s automatic response to identifying technical errors allows learners to see the value in their creativity and develop this separately. The process feels less punitive and critical. Assessment of technical accuracy can be reintegrated later.

Online learning can hinder open and free self-expression
Many learners were much more willing to continue to develop their reading skills rather than their creative writing skills in the period of online learning. The reasons for this have not been explored due to time constraints. However, it is felt that learners have more courage to ‘make mistakes’ where they can receive regular feedback from peers and tutors in class, which is the model that had worked well until the period of lockdown. A writing task might take longer to complete than a reading analysis task and there is often a lack of self-discipline in teenage learners when being expected to complete independent study remotely.

Modelling emotional openness encourages creativity
Many young males find it challenging to express themselves openly because of established ideas of masculinity or deeply engrained attitudes to, and responses to, emotional openness and honesty. An important step to reducing this damage is to normalise the process of speaking and writing about emotions.


Hawkins, P., and Smith, N., (2007) Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy: Supervision and Development. Basingstoke: Open University Press.

Lane, R. (date unknown) “Gender and Literacy: Improving Boys’ Writing”. [Accessed 30.06.21]

Pinkett, M and Roberts M. (2019) Boys Don’t Try. Abingdon: Routledge.

“Professional Standards.” The ETF, Accessed 13 May 2021

Ireland, J. (2019) Studying English and Mathematics at Level 2 post-16: issues and challenges [Accessed 30.06.21]