Before I went into teaching, I imagined that a significant part of my job would be doing extra-curricular things: that a massive part of the teaching day would be organising school plays, trips, clubs, and having those really lovely interactions with kids that make you feel like you’re doing a great job. I imagined I would have endless amounts of time to sit with pupils and do these wonderful things, and if I’m honest, I thought the money to do them would just be available, that schools would have a nice big pot for these activities and that all it takes was someone with a bit of initiative to jump up and get something started.

The reality, of course, isn’t quite like this. So much of our time is taken up with lessons: planning, working on the curriculum, responding to students’ work, extra revision lessons, actually getting our head round the best way to help children learn, and get them on board with the stuff going on in the classroom. And it’s right to prioritise this. Schools are here to help pupils learn the things they need, and it’s right and proper that most of our energies go into the lessons that help them achieve this. But still, the concern remains: are we missing a trick by side-lining extra-curriculars?

Early in my career, I organised a trip for Y9 to the British Library to take part in one of their free workshops. It was imperative for me that this trip would be completely free, because the school had a huge percentage of disadvantaged pupils, and the importance of equality in education goes without saying. This trip was going to be for everyone. I was really sad to speak to one of our most vulnerable students, let’s call her Chloe, who told me point blank she wasn’t going to go. Knowing the student quite well, I knew that it was just too much for her. She had never really been outside her very small area, and neither had her family. Although she didn’t articulate it like this, I think the idea of going somewhere she didn’t know was one of extreme anxiety for her, and on the day of the trip she didn’t turn up for school.

It was something I thought about for a long time afterwards, because it was such a missed opportunity for her to experience something completely different. For many reasons, including poverty, her circumstances had narrowed her experience of the world and already at age 13 her horizons were far closer than we may have hoped for her. Even if school had given her the exam results she would need to do something different with her life, we hadn’t given her the self-belief to feel confident in new situations. I wondered what would have been different if we’d got to her earlier, and she’d been a part of something early on which boosted her confidence with unknown experiences. She had such promise in Y7, but she left school last year with no qualifications.

Experiences like Chloe’s are really common, and I’m sure we all recognise children like her, children with so much potential, something happens and we lose them. Adolescence happens; outside influences take over school-based ones, and their aspirations can become lower and lower. Often by Y10 intelligent children no longer see themselves as clever. I know extracurricular activities aren’t the only answer to problems like this, but they can have a massive part to play. If we can gift them extra-curriculars that excite and inspire them, perhaps they can see themselves in a different light.

A few years ago, I started a book club. I went into assemblies, I put up posters, I sent round information to all tutors and English teachers to share with their classes; I even made pupils write it in their planners. On the day of the Big Launch I brought in biscuits for at least half the school.

Two students came.

But quite quickly, it grew and grew. Now these weren’t necessarily the children you might expect to volunteer for a book club, but they started to see themselves as readers, and as clever, and they enjoyed that feeling of success. They saw themselves in a different light.

As well as giving these children the opportunity to see themselves differently, it became clear that book club was a bit of a safe haven for some of these pupils. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult social time can be for young people. I remember finding that hour at lunch incredibly unhappy really, and if it wasn’t for those teachers opening up the music rooms for me to hang out in, I would have found it all very difficult so just the fact that we give up our time to give pupils a space to be in can have enormous impact and although they might not realise it, children can be really grateful.

I really don’t believe it’s too far to say that increased extracurricular could lead to increased teacher retention. I know they can increase workload, and we are so time poor, but they give us those little connections that make us love our jobs. We also know that teachers are happy to give up their time for worthwhile activities. In Becky Allen and Sam Sims’ bookThe Teacher Gap, they talk really interestingly on how teachers are actually incredibly generous with their time for meaningful things, because we know that this is what brings us a sense of autonomy and satisfaction.

Possibly most importantly, the experiences extra-curriculars provide have a direct impact on pupils’ reading and writing. I think we’ve all asked pupils to write about something like a memorable day out, or somewhere you’ve visited and been surprised when they struggled to write anything coherent. Perhaps this comes down to their experience of things to write about. In 2014 researchers funded by the EEF — took children on a memorable day out and then they took part in structured writing activities about that day. Pupils made anextra nine months’ progress when they took part in the project compared to similar pupils who didn’t. The experience provided was key to success in their writing. The same goes for reading. Daisy Christodoulou and Doug Lemov explain that reading requires knowledge: both knowledge of words and of the world. We all struggle to read things we’ve had no experience in. According to PISA’s2015 report extra-curriculars can “improve students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills” and they even mention that because more extracurricular activities are offered in advantaged schools, they can heighten socio-economic inequalities in education.

So, the richer the experiences we can offer children, the greater their successes. This widening of children’s experience is what school is all about, and this is all the more important in climate where sometimes, increased focus on the Ebacc narrows the curriculum. Hopefully this will become easier for us. Some schools are carving enrichment into the timetables of teachers, so that we can offer more activities without massively compromising our time and wellbeing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed there will be more and more of this in the future.

Some ideas:

1. Open up rooms for clubs, both formal and informal (book club, comic club, drawing club, film club, Lego club, quiet club, cards club, bring your lunch club)

2. Make a big deal of competitions and national events. (World Book Day, National Poetry Day, STEM week, Black History Month, writing competitions.

3. Direct a mini play. Perform it to other classes.

4. Get involved in local festivals. They have free events in music, art or theatre.

5. Find free things around you. Free things for schools in London include the British Library, Keats’ House, National Theatre, Dickens’ House, Geffrye Museum, Crick, Wellcome collection, Libraries.

6. If you can’t get the kids out, get in some visitors. Beg anyone you know to come in to do a talk or workshop. Take groups of children off timetable for a bit.

7. Publish kids’ work into anthologies; use the website or school newsletter.

This is a version of my session from the New Voices Conference, 13th October 2018 organised by the wonderful @heymisssmith.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.