In the east of the university city of Oxford is a school, the Oxford Spires Academy. Despite its glamorous name, however, the school is a state comprehensive where students speak more than 30 languages between them.
Nevertheless, and thanks in large part to the tireless dedication of one woman, the school has been putting itself on the map — through poetry.
Kate Clanchy, who was born in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh, is the school’s writer in residence. She has spent the past decade teaching poetry to children — predominantly children from refugee and migrant backgrounds — to help them gain confidence and empower them to shape their own narratives.
“I think it’s particularly important for migrants to tell their story and have control of their story,” she tells Global Citizen. “Their stories get taken from them when they arrive because they have to tell a version of the story when they’re entering the country. They can’t deviate from that, and I think that’s extremely hard.”
“Very often they’re talking in another language, they’re in fear, and their story is being distorted in different ways,” she says. “So I think for migrants to have control of their story and to have a good way of telling their story is very important.”
Oxford Spires is home to pupils from all over the world, says Clanchy, meaning that there isn’t really a “majority”. The school has many asylum seekers, she says, with “refugees from war and refugees from poverty.”
For #RefugeeWeek2019 . Amineh talks to the Mediterranean. Amineh came to the UK from Syria in 2014: now she's writing her poetry straight into English. Especially in workshops with @soshunetworkpic.twitter.com/2JsK2iGsk4— Kate Clanchy (@KateClanchy1) June 17, 2019
But, given their disrupted and at times violent backgrounds, many of the children arrived at the school with a whole host of unspoken experiences, memories, and histories. For Clanchy, she was worried about letting the children’s experiences remain hidden, untold, and festering.
“The more terrible the place they have fled, the more likely they are to have seen things that leave an awful, lingering sense of shame,” Clanchy writes, in a Long Read for the Guardian. And so she turned to poetry for a solution.
When she first began teaching at the school, according to Clanchy, she had believed that speaking English as a second language would put the pupils at a disadvantage when it came to creative writing.
But her first pupils surprised her, creating a series of beautiful poems that spoke heartbreakingly of the countries and homes that so many of them had left behind.
“I think poetry is especially important to many, many traditions,” she says, describing how many of the pupils’ cultural experiences actually enhanced rather than hindered their storytelling ability. “Poetry’s very important to Afghans, especially Afghan women. They speak poetry to each other, they play poetry games. It’s really, really important.”
“So if you can give them a way of making their poems in English, telling their stories in English, or just doing it in Arabic, I think that’s a really important and helpful thing to do,” she adds.
Another response to It Ain't What You Do, It's What It Does For You by our new #PoetLaureate It's a very empowering poem (also English teachers, it teaches itself, try it) . Shukria is from the Hazara minority in Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/FEzIxFKDa7— Kate Clanchy (@KateClanchy1) May 11, 2019
In fact, the poetry being produced by many of her pupils was of such high quality that Clanchy decided they deserved some recognition, and the opportunities that would come hand in hand with that.
That’s why, in 2013, Clanchy launched a poetry group for a small number of “very quiet foreign girls”, officially named the Other Countries Poetry Group. She gathered some of the most promising poets from across the school, bringing the group together every Thursday lunchtime to talk and to write their poems.
“This was girls, and they were all quite recent migrants and I was really wanting to see how far they could go,” says Clanchy. “I had a theory that recent migrants might be better poets, that they might be hearing the language differently.”
Put briefly, Clanchy’s plan worked. Over the next five years, the girls in the group grew in confidence, grew in ability, and started to shape their own narratives in a way that was very soon being recognised with prizes and awards across the country.
“That was a few years ago and now I do lots and lots of different groups, and what I try to do is make the groups work for the kids that are in front of me,” continues Clanchy. “But those particular girls were an early focus. They taught me a lot.”
Since then, she’s been able to see her first girls flourish. One of them, says Clanchy, is now a barrister. Another got four As at A-level and is now at St Andrew’s University studying languages, English and creative writing. One of them is at Goldsmiths now on a refugee scholarship, while another is doing her final year studying politics at Reading. The other two are now studying education.
“They don’t need to have poetry as a focus, they don’t need to become writers, it just gives them a different kind of confidence,” she adds. “It’s there in their lives and they read and they still write, and it’s helped them to gain confidence and change. I just think it’s something they’re entitled to have.”
In 2018, pupils at Oxford Spires — led by Clanchy — published a poetry anthology entitled England: Poems From a School that was met with national acclaim. It's a portrait of England, as experienced by children who have made the country their new home. You can find out more about the creation of the anthology, and some of the poems featured in it, here.
But, she highlights, there was never a “grand plan," instead the poetry, the publications, and the success is something that has just “evolved as we’ve gone along.”
“It’s become a focus because we succeed and we win,” she says. “It’s like how you get schools that are very good at cricket, we’re very good at poetry.”
In fact, she says, the head boy and the head girl for the past five years at the school have been competition winning, committed poets, and that’s why they’ve been named as leaders of their peers.
“The school’s been through lots of different journeys, but it is very civilised, it is very lovely,” adds Clanchy.
“I think it’s very important for refugee kids to come to a local school and a local school that’s welcoming,” she says. “Because the school is the community, and the school is England.”
She adds: “My students come to a multicultural school which is very civilised and a kind place, and it allows them to speak, and poetry allows them to speak, and their whole education allows them to speak, and be heard, and to hear each other.”