A Brief History of Student Writing and Community Publishing

Relevant Interviews in the Changing Faces Archive include, Stella Fitzpatrick Gillian Frost, Sue Gardener, John Glynn, Ursula Howard, Jane Mace, Alan Tuckett and many others. There are numerous examples of student writing in the archive, along with records of writing weekends and copies of the Write First Time newspaper and another similar one The Liverpool News.

Gatehouse books set up in Manchester in 1977 was one of the pioneers of the student writing and publishing movement in adult literacy. In 1984, Gatehouse published a collection of accounts from students about their life experiences entitled Where do we go from here? One contributor, Gordon talks about the power of student publishing:

“I think it is very important that a student sees something of their writing in print. I got a wonderful feeling when I saw it, a feeling that I could never explain. I feel as if people over there in other parts of Manchester or over there in other parts of the country need to see these things, need to see my work in print say “Oh, if he can do it, I can do it.” (Gatehouse,1984, p.6)

In his introduction to the collection, the editor, John Glynn, explained the importance of the book in this way:

“When literacy first became public in the mid-seventies a lot of figures were quoted on how many people could not read and write, but left blank ‘Who are these X million people and where are they?’. This book tells how 11 people survived as adult non-readers in a modern society that doesn’t accept or tolerate not being able to read and write.” (Gatehouse,1984, p.5)

The student writing and community publishing movement was a visible strand in early work in Adult Literacy. Today it is hardly talked about and although it is still a method that is used in some programmes it is hard to know how widespread this is. Current examples include the ESOL REFLECT project and the NRDC’s Voices on a Page project. For those who remember its origins, it has a great deal of significance as a movement and this has been recorded well by Jane Mace (see for example, (Mace, 1995 O'Rouke, 2004; O'Rourke & Mace, 1992). Student writing was produced in learning groups, especially those taking place in voluntary and community-based programmes; by individuals working with community publishing organizations, and from residential writing events that for a while were part of the funded opportunities open to literacy students. An archive of “Write First Time” (a newspaper produced by a collective of tutors and students around the country that was a crucial fore-runner of Gatehouse books) exists in the Ruskin college library and the Changing Faces archive has many examples of student writing and community publishing activities. Some of these are beautifully produced and professionally published through organizations like Gatrehouse books and Centerprise. Some are simple duplicated booklets put together locally by tutors and students.

To understand the importance and radicalism of this movement we need to be reminded of the ideas about literacy learning that were prevalent in the 1970s and the fact that almost no teaching material suitable for adults existed at that time. Approaches were adapted from remedial reading programmes with children. There was a belief in the low ability of ALNE students; a belief that writing could not be tackled by poor readers, and that tuition therefore should be focussed on the mechanics of handwriting and spelling rather than creative writing activities. This was the era before genre theory was proposed, before the New Literacy Studies was articulated and before academic writing and learning support were commonplace (see Freedman & Medway,1994; Street, 1984): Access and Second Chance to Learn courses were just beginning (Edwards, 1986).

But it was also the period when whole language and language experience approaches in schools were being promoted by educationalists and writers such as Sylvia Ashton-Warner, James Britten, Ken Goodman, Herbert Kohl and Harold Rosen, Chris Searle and Frank Smith. ESOL teachers were being introduced to communicative language theories and the idea of a range of repertoires for linguistic expression (see Rosenberg 2007 for details).Therefore, as well as being a pragmatic response to the need for materials in a new field of educational practice, the SWCP movement connected with innovations in language and literacy in schools at the time and in child-centred primary school methods (Searle, 1986).

It also had links with radical oral and local history movements that were developing then, such as The History Workshop http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/ which emphasised the importance of documenting working class histories and popular folk traditions and with local community publishing projects. Similar methods were used within the feminist movement to record women’s history and within other minority rights movements (including disability rights) where the notion of “voice” was a central part of the emancipatory political project. A number of people were influenced by Paulo Freire’s books, newly published in English in 1972 (Freire, 1972). Freire’s ideas - especially his method of using the generative themes that emerged from discussions with learners - fitted in well with ideas of literacy as a tool for empowerment. Much of the writing that was produced was straightforwardly autobiographical and includes description and comment on the social, personal and working contexts that people experienced in their lives. Sometimes collections of writing were themed, around aspects of women’s experience (such as childbirth) or experiences of education. The idea that “a beginning writer is not a beginning thinker” freed up a whole generation of literacy students to express experiences and creativity that had been left outside of their previous education.

The student writing movement combined in one set of activities a) an alternative view of the origins of literacy difficulties, politically rooted in concerns about social justice, unequal access to education and culture; b) a solution to the dearth of adult-focussed reading materials and c) an alternative pedagogical process which used the language experience approach where the tutor acts as scribe and editor to new writers.

This method had a knock-on effect to social relationships in the learning situation. It changed how the teachers’ role was perceived and carried out since the tutor became a mediator and scribe rather than an expert transmitting knowledge of writing (see Mace, 1979). It opened up new possibilities for the students’ role in the management and decision-making surrounding the teaching, learning and editing process. This new way of approaching literacy involved demystifying the processes of administration and decision-making. It led to efforts to produce accessible minutes, newsletters and annual reports (see for example the National Federation of Voluntary Literacy Schemes “wallpapers” and Centreprise and Pecket Well annual reports).

It led to the invention of new organizational forms such as the writing weekend and the newspaper collective, and forms of published output such as collections of short pieces of writing, a mixture of prose, poetry, graphics, drama, opinion and news items. The Changing Faces archive contains a good selection of the range of formats across the time period in different anthologies. The emphasis on the production of writing, rather than just reading, for literacy learners; audience issues; paying attention to line breaks and other aspects of layout, and plain English to increase readability, all were revolutionary to the literacy field at the time. This burst of creative expression mirrored wider political and cultural experiments of the time but was especially characteristic of the adult literacy movement in the UK. Although there are examples of student writing in other countres which grew out of popular and community education, it was only in the UK that the strategy became an explicit one supported and discussed within literacy work and connected with broader traditions and social movements.

This work was supported from outside the field by local or regional arts/literature-based organisations and funders. The Gatehouse Books publishing project mentioned above, was one of a number of similar organizations that could offer more professional style publication, a national distribution and associated tutor resources (see for example “Telling Tales” A collection of short stories, poetry and drama, by writers from adult basic education published in 1992 ). Many local publishing projects sprang up in the 1970s: Bristol Broadsides, Queenspark Books in Brighton, The Peckham Bookplace, Centreprise. These groups were linked and found an important place within the national network called the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP) which organised national conferences and holds an archive of publications(Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, 1986). Tom Woodin, who worked at Gatehouse books has written extensively about the worker writer movement (see for example Woodin, 2005a and 2008).

Local literacy programmes themselves produced more or less glossy versions of writing produced by students as well as other materials. Leicestershire and Sheffield LEAs both supported local publishing of teaching materials and student writing. Manchester and the Inner London Education Authority funded Afro-Caribbean Development projects which included collections of student writing alongside training materials for tutors. The Lee Community Education Centre, attached to Goldsmiths College London produced a particularly well documented series called Problems of Representation that was a mixture of tutor and student writing.

The ideas of student writing were also taken up in research projects such as the Open Learning Project (exploring experiences of new forms of adult basic education) and Not Just a Number (focussed on workplace learning) carried out at Lancaster University. In its early days, the Research and Practice in Adult lIteracy group, RaPAL, ran events and a collaborative research weekend for students and tutors (See Rapal 1988). Some voluntary schemes published results of student organized surveys (Blackfriars, Cambridge House). Pecket Well College, a user-run and managed collective produced not just autobiographical writing but many other documents, including advocacy letters, minutes and management documents (Pecket Well College, 1987).

The national government agency in England and Wales, ALBSU, supported this work by funding the Write First Time student newspaper collective over a period of 8 years. It published a training booklet on running writing events. It funded the Special Activities Project, carried out by Robert Merry to document the additional, (often writing-related) events organised by ALNE programmes. It also funded a Writing Development project carried out by Sue Gardener which produced a tutor pack called “Conversations with Strangers” (Shrapnel Gardener, Undated)”. Another pack called “Opening Time” (Frost & Hoy, Undated)” published by Gatehouse Books also began translating the writing activities into teacher resources, thereby formalising it as an approach to literacy work.

The SWCP movement affected methods of advocacy for ALNE, increased the visibility of student voices and challenged assumptions about who could create “literature”. It was potentially powerful, therefore, as a shaping force in the field. Perhaps for this reason it was not allowed to flourish unchallenged and the fact that it ran into political difficulties reveals a lot about the dominant assumptions about adult literacy learners and the climate of the time. Complaints were voiced about pieces of student writing that were critical of the government and tutors were accused of putting words into the mouths of susceptible and vulnerable learners (see (Mace, 1979). As Alan Tuckett recalls below from his experience at the Friends Centre in Brighton, these difficulties, combined with the lack of mainstream resources for developing student writing activities since the mid 1980s, prevented the movement from realising the full variety of its expression in practice, especially in cross-curricular work, family and workplace programmes:

“…I don't think autobiography is all….that happened and I think its best to think about the literacy publication as part of the wider worker writers' movement. There's an awful lot of people who were writing from an autobiographical dynamic initially but writing about industrial conditions or changing social context for the communities in which they were located, were writing about environment and industrial change and all the rest of it. A lot of those people had technical difficulties with one sort or another with reading and writing but editing is writing and the editing is the core skill….If we'd had had....a greater solidity of investment to develop literacy work at the heart of the wider curriculum we should have seen writing of all kinds of different sorts and you could say it was the limitations of those of us who had been involved from the beginning, of remaining in a cul-de-sac ………..that was our fault too, I think, that the curriculum didn't spread as broadly as we could have stretched it. I certainly know we were trying to move in that direction in Brighton”
Alan Tuckett, interview for the Changing Faces Project [P132:658]


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Woodin, Tom (2005a) ‘Building culture from the bottom-up: the educational origins of the FWWCP’, History of Education, 34, 4, July, 345-63.
Woodin, Tom (2005b) ‘Muddying the waters: class and identity in a working class cultural organisation’, Sociology, 39, 5.
Woodin, Tom (2005c) ‘”More writing than welding”: learning in worker writer groups’, History of Education, 39, 5, 551-67. Woodin, Tom (2007) ‘Working class education and social change in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain’, History of Education, 36, 4-5, 483-496.
Woodin, Tom (2008) A beginner reader is not a beginner thinker: student publishing since the 1970’s in Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education 44:1, 219-232.

An introduction to genre theory by Daniel Chandler: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/intgenre/intgenre8.html

Sources of information about Paulo Freire:
http://www.paulofreireinstitute.org/ http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm

The REFLECT Methodology based on Freire’s ideas:

Information about Sylvia Ashton-Warner:

Communicative language theories:

The language experience approach:



Link to City University Link to the Institute of Education Link to the ESRC