Changing Lives Through Writing: First Story’s Young Writers’ Festival

First Story, a national literacy charity and FEA member, is dedicated to reducing inequality through creative writing education in disadvantaged schools. They kick off their programme each year with the First Story Young Writers' Festival, which takes in the awe-inspiring historic surroundings of the University of Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall.

Writers and secondary schools from across the country descend on Lady Margaret Hall en masse and, as coaches pull up opposite the Porters Lodge, mini-buses weave their way through the campus, and students follow signs to the festival location, the excitement of what's in store is palpable.

For the young people taking part in the programme, from low-income communities around the country, this is the start of their First Story journey. Jaws drop and eyes widen as these participants, led by their teachers, make their way in to marquee that serves as the festival hub. Everyone is brimming with energy and knows that they are part of something special.

The Young Writers’ Festival gives First Story students the chance to take part in a range of activities designed to stimulate the imagination and broaden their horizons, from intimate writing workshops to inspirational talks from acclaimed writers. As First Story co-founder William Fiennes points out as the first day gets underway, this is their festival; a day to write, be inspired and find their voices. They may arrive as students but they will depart knowing that they are writers.

Warmed up by dynamic performance poet Andy Craven-Griffiths, the whole audience hears of the powerful, tangible difference First Story can make from First Story alumni, who all display amazingly assured levels of confidence. In their own unique and individual ways Shakira Irfan, Brendan Croft, Jesse April and Nathanael Idundun all highlight the importance of the programme and being a part of the First Story community.

As Shakira puts it, “The most important thing that First Story has allowed me to discover is how I like to express myself, and what expression means to me. Because it’s different for us all. And that is not something that someone tells you, it is something that you come to realise for yourself. The best part about First Story is that no one tells you what to write or how to write; they show you exactly why you love writing. And it’s not someone standing in front of you telling you why you love writing – it’s you realising that, on your own.”

Breaking out from the marquee and heading off into all the rooms of the college, the young people can't wait to get to performances and workshops, and meet the high-profile writers with whom they will soon be considering themselves equals as they all write together in a shared space.

Between the readings and the creative outpourings, there's a chance to hear from keynote speakers, chaired by the hugely popular Juno Dawson. Intense and entertaining conversations with Laura Dockrill, Anthony McGowan and Dave Rudden prove that this young audience can hold its own when encountering high-level debate about the nature of fantasy writing or the relevance of Young Adult fiction to adult audiences.

The day culminates with the new young writers sharing the work they’ve written to a packed marquee, with the fabulous Kate Fox compering the readings and joining in with the rapturous applause.

No doubt the journey home – whether that be a long haul back to Hull, Bradford or Leeds or traffic jam-tastic travel Londonwards – is full of chat about what lies ahead and endless sharing of stories born at the festival.

First Story changes lives through writing. We make that claim because it’s what the students we work with tell us, time and again. By placing talented, professional writers in secondary schools serving low-income communities to work with teachers and students, we foster creativity and communication skills. Through the intensive, fun programmes our writers run, First Story raises aspirations and gives students the skills and confidence to achieve them.

The Young Writers' Festival sets the tone for what's to come. It puts participants in the right frame of mind and is life-affirming for all involved – from the students, teachers and writers to the host of volunteers who make the day possible and the First Story team.

Among young writers who have spoken at the festival is Abdinasir Ahmed, whose story demonstrates the unique power of creative writing to change young lives. You can hear Abdi's story here.

In 2016/17, First Story is offering 1,500 young people from disadvantaged communities the same opportunity to work with talented writers, providing skills and inspiration that can increase their confidence and aspirations. Find out more about what they do and how to get involved:



Increasing the pool of male applicants to university

Over the summer we have seen the publication of two reports focusing on the gap between boys and girls in terms of reading and in the number of male applicants to university.  We are also about to witness a further decline in the number of white working class boys entering university.  Save the Children’s ‘Lost Boys’ report indicated that there is up to a 17% gap in attainment between boys and girls in areas with high levels of poverty.  King’s College and LKMCo report that there is a significant under representation of white working class boys in higher education.  The issue is cyclical – lower numbers of boys achieving expected reading levels leading to lower numbers of white working class boys applying to university perpetuating the number of boys heading for manual roles or worst still, unemployment.   As a consequence, there is a demonstrable impact on the aspirations of the ‘working’ classes and the educational outcomes of their children.


Save the Children and LKMCo both identify ‘low attainment at school for much of the problem of low participation in higher education’.  This problem has been known for decades, the Aim Higher initiative through the 2000’s did little to address the issue nor has the ‘widening participation’ agenda impacted on aspirations or achievements of white, working class boys. If the pool of male applicants to university is to increase it is self-evident that the issue needs to be addressed at early stages of a boy’s life.


Save the Children recommend improving early years provision – from birth and pre-school, investment in evidence-based support programmes that train professionals to raise aspirations, increase access and improve achievements preparing all boys to be school ready.   It is my belief borne out by significant evidence that every parent wants the best for the child, whatever the challenges, needs or disadvantages that is their experience.   However, some parents, and practitioners in early years settings might need support in achieving the best.  The Achievement for All ‘Achieving Early’ programme has impacted on practice in 60 settings in poor areas of the country, resulting in parents, boys (and girls) improving their engagement with reading and learning ‘how to learn’.  With parents commenting that they ‘now know what it is to be different’, it is clear that change can happen.


LMKCo recommend improving primary aged children experience of higher education – I have witnessed the impact of Primary Futures programme, which has done much to improve the aspirations of boys, impacting on their aspirations.  There is also considerable evidence cited in Sutton Trust reports on the impact of teachers aspirations for their pupils.  The ‘can do’ approach rather than ‘because of your background’ excuses.  Many of the boys who have broken through the class barrier will have done so because of the aspirations of their teachers, and their ability to find the greatness that exists in every boy, dig it out and share it with the world.


If we are committed to improving the outcomes for boys it is clear from both reports and other research that investment in developing early years practice is needed.  The increase in provision for 2 and 3 year olds is to be applauded,  it is now time to increase training opportunities at a local setting level, building on the fantastic commitment of early years teachers to improving outcomes.  It is only by bringing together parents and carers, teachers and leaders to improve their understanding of what can be done to improve aspirations, access and achievement in the early years that the next generation of boys will be ready to apply to university.

Professor Sonia Blandford – CEO Achievement for All, former Pro-Vice Chancellor Canterbury Christ Church University