Encouraging learning: Magic Cards are a credit to Crawford

Crawford Johnston at Fisherprint watching his educational cards being printed. Picture: David Lowndes/Peterborough ET
Crawford Johnston at Fisherprint watching his educational cards being printed. Picture: David Lowndes/Peterborough ET
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Thirteen-year-old Crawford Johnston has created a ‘money-making’ scheme to improve pupils’ creative writing skills. His Creative Writing Magic Money Cards, devised at home to improve his own writing performance as he prepared for his SATS exams, are now being rolled out to schools across the city, and his family hope further success beckons. He laid his cards on the table to deputy features editor John Baker:

PETERBOROUGH City Council recognises that written attainment in the city is below average, following last year’s SATS (Standard Assessment Test) results.

They showed that 18 out of 50 city primary schools had less than 60 per cent of 11-year-old pupils achieving a Level Four grade in both English and maths, and were therefore classed as “failing”.

According to the government’s own figures one third of children after six years of professional teaching leave primary school failing in basic English.

But when Crawford Johnston’s Creative Writing Magic Money Cards system was trialled by schools in the city and further afield, they thought that his distinctive idea of using cards to provide examples of how to use words correctly, and assigning a difficulty ‘value’ to each usage, could pay dividends for Peterborough students.

Crawford, who attends Oundle School, was joined at Fisherprint in Padholme Road by his parents, Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, and city council assistant director for resources and children’s services Jonathan Lewis for the launch of the innovative system.

The card sets will initially make their journey from Fisherprint to the 60 primary schools in the city, with the possibility of secondary schools being included later.

The aim is to get all 30,000 schools (including 25,000 primary schools) across the country using the cards, which are aimed at pupils between the ages of nine and 15.

Crawford, who lives in Eye, designed the system two years ago to improve his own performance in writing essays.

He said: “I was in the last year of primary school and was leafing through exercise books, and trying my best to prepare.

“I was surrounded by little bits of paper from exercise books which showed good language. They were all there in front of me so I thought: ‘I could use this’.

“I put a value on the ones that I thought were harder to use, and it worked wonders for me. I’m quite proud that it could be a success and even a business.”

Crawford convinced parents Ruth and John of its merits, and his father then approached fellow members of the Rotary Club of Peterborough to support the idea. That, plus the support from the city council, led to its printing two years later.

The cards are tailored to fit in with the National Curriculum for Key Stages 2 and 3, and Mr Johnston insists that the system can be picked up within five minutes.

It works like this: A child is writing a simple 100-word story, and wants to use some advanced words, but is unsure of how to correctly apply them.

The cards are laid out, he takes the relevant one, and reads several examples of how to use particular words in a given context.

Each card has a monetary value of one, two or three coins on its back, so the more technically advanced the example he uses, the higher the value.

At the end of the exercise he totals the value of all the cards used, and the theory is that he will become more adept at using the correct English and will try and beat his score next time.

So while the lower values for colour might be examples such as red, blue or green, the higher values might be gained through using ‘olive’ or ‘copper’, or descriptive terms such as ‘frosty white’.

The 56-card sets allow exploration of simple concepts such as time and temperature through to the more advanced usage of inversion, assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia.

Mr Johnston said: “There is not one child who has used this, who has not understood the difference between simile and metaphor at the end of it.

“Writing is at its lowest ebb at the moment - four out of ten boys can’t write properly - but this works because it is easy to use and works from lesson one.

“We give the cards to headmasters and say ‘take it away for a month’. They come back that afternoon and say; ‘I understand them straight away, used them, and they were fab’.

“Barclays Bank recently ran a competition for small businesses with nine regional prizes of £50,000, and we entered telling them what we could do.

“Out of the several thousand entries we made it to the last nine - and that was before we were really up and running.

“We couldn’t tell them about how it can be used with whiteboards, or the fact that we have a Youtube video set up.

“They have encouraged us to enter next year.”

The idea came to the attention of the city council and Mr Lewis at the start of the year, and the feedback from primary schools such as Orton Longueville and Barnack was impressive.

In blind trials at Oundle School, pupil performance with the method was of particular note, with one year seven pupil bagging a 100 per cent score in an end of year English exam, and a year eight student winning an English prize for poetry.

The potential for expansion could include foreign languages, and usage away from schools.

Mr Jackson said: “Creative Writing Magic Money Cards deserve to be in every school in the country. The improvement they bring in English skills is astonishing.

“I am impressed that a schoolboy came up with the idea and particularly impressed that he is from Peterborough. I am very pleased to see Peterborough leading the way with distribution to our city’s schools.”

Mr Jackson added that there may be wider applications than just schools as there are 85,000 prisoners in the UK who struggle with writing - and Mr Johnston added that he had contacted the Ministry of Justice with suggestions for how the system could be used in prisons.

North West Cambridgeshire MP Shailesh Vara added: “This is an exciting and creative project in Peterborough and I wish it success.

“Often it is young people who come up with great ideas and this is no exception. Crawford is to be congratulated.”

And Mr Lewis said: “I get approached by someone almost every day with different ideas so we have to screen what we get, and the results have been encouraging. I have seen similar systems to aid reading, but not writing.

“The city’s results are getting better and this could be another way of making a difference.

“I am a governor at City College and I am going to talk to them to see whether the students with learning difficulties might get a chance to use them.”

The media interest for the project has been steadily growing, and several attended Friday’s production of the bright cards, chatting above the din of the giant printing machines.

And in the middle of the noise was unassuming Crawford, who seemed bemused by all the attention his idea - once just scraps of paper in his bedroom - was receiving.

His father said that Crawford knew the system worked for him but probably doesn’t know how far it could go.

He added: “He’s just a quiet boy who is very thoughtful for people in everything he does. We are proud of him.”

The cards cost £19.65 for a single set or £215.90 for a school pack of 20 sets.

For more information go to www.creativewritingmmc.co.uk or telephone 01733 223367.