Saturday, 29 April 2017

A pen licence? It is only just a stupid piece of plastic

I am a dad.

A wise teacher once told me that when you become a parent, your view on teaching changes. And, in truth, it does subtly. I feel I understand some parents better. I feel I understand children better. My experiences as a parent has put me in the situations that many students and parents deal with daily and weekly. I have seen bullying, friendship fallouts, a lack of confidence and many more things from the perspective of a parent. That’s not to say that a teacher must have a child to be a better teacher. My goodness, no - I don’t want to spark a quick increase in the national birth rate. Some teachers are naturally astute and empathic and can understand things far better than I could ever do. Having a child just jumped started those dormant empathic tendencies.  

I am a dad and as a dad I was put in a situation that made me think.

I have twins. This week, one twin got her pen licence.

A pen licence is a privilege for students. It allows them to write with a pen, if their handwriting is good enough. Students, in some primary schools, have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their handwriting before they get their licence. The purpose of it is to raise the standard of handwriting with a dash of healthy competition.

Being married to a primary teacher, I knew of the pen licence and thought nothing of it. I assumed it was a good idea. As a secondary teacher, I thought it okay and acceptable as it promoted legible handwriting. It must work if lots of teachers do it.
Then, only one twin got her pen licence. And then my thoughts and feelings changed. One child was happy. The other child was in absolute tears. I was faced with a situation I had never been through before. A child crying over a pen. Yep, a silly stupid pen. We have hundreds of the bleeding things at home. I have loads at work too. A pen. But, for a nine year old this pen meant so much more. To her, it was a badge of acceptance. To her, it was badge of her friendship group. To her, it was her social standing in the class. The absence of a lump of plastic had transformed her view of the classroom.

She cried and cried over this piece of plastic. My attempts, as a father, failed to console her. It is only a stupid pen? I just hadn’t got it. All her friends had one except her. She had worked so hard for one.
The use of a dunce hat had been rejected in society a long time ago, but the lack of pen is just another form of that hat for my daughter. She felt stupid, less and different. But, here is the rub. She had a visual cue to show that she was different. Her friends had pens; she had a pencil. For in the eyes of a nine year old, pencils are for babies and pens are for grownups. One simple handing out of a pen changed the social make-up of the class. People on the same level before are now on different levels. She felt stupid, less and different.

I am a dad and a father to twins. One twin got a pen licence. One twin did not. The twin that got the licence was able bodied. The twin that didn’t get the licence was not able bodied.

The daughter, who struggles mentally and emotionally to see herself as equal to her peers because she has a disability called Cerebral Palsy, felt stupid, less and different. My daughter walks and runs differently. She wears different clothes and different shoes to her peers. Now, added to those differences she has another visual sign of being different to others. It is just a stupid pen!
At times, I think is it just me. Am I just sensitive because I have a daughter with a disability? These are some of the following things people have shared with me.

A boy was teased in his class because all his friends had a pen licence and he was the only one in the friendship group that didn’t have one.
A girl would never get a pen licence because she had Cerebral Palsy and she used a laptop.
Dyslexic children never getting a pen licence.
A boy never getting his pen licence throughout his whole time in primary school.

The more I talked about it, the more it alarmed me as a parent. I keep thinking there must be another way to make students write better. My daughter’s world crumbled. Thankfully, she is better now, but it will have an impact on her time in school. But, she will return to the classroom and write with a pencil while her friends and her sister write with a pen. Students are not always of the same ability, but we don’t stick a badge on students that can’t read or write. Only when you look at a student’s work do we see that they struggle to spell, yet a pencil is a badge. A badge that says you are not grow up enough to hold a pen. So if the pen licence is such a good thing, let’s have other licences. For each one, give students a badge.
A badge for reading.
A badge for spelling.
A badge for counting up to ten. 
A badge for writing in sentences.
A badge for using commas.

My daughter might not be ready for the pen licence. That I can handle. However, I can’t handle the impact it has had on our lives. It has upset my daughter, my wife and me as a result of this lump of plastic. Becoming a parents makes you see the tiny ripples and the big waves they make. A pen licence is a tiny ripple but it makes huge waves, emotionally and mentally.
I love primary teachers (I have a ring on my finger to prove it), but I am asking a question as a dad now and not as a teacher: is a pen licence an effective way of improving handwriting?

Convince me, a parent, that a pen licence is worth it. I have only really seen the demoralising impact of it.

Thanks for reading,

Note: I am not questioning or judging any teacher using it in their lessons; I am questioning and challenging the idea and its use.


  1. I totally agree with your questioning. I think it is a poor idea to have pen licences for various reasons - and you have highlighted one.

    I am really into teaching handwriting, and teaching it well, and how to hold a pencil (or pen) well - preferably with a tripod grip unless there is a physical reason not to.

    But, more often than not, if children cannot handwrite well enough, or as well as others, it is the fault of the teaching - or lack thereof - and if children do struggle such as your child with a physical reason for this - then it is clearly insensitive to persist with the pen licence notion.

    Perhaps the teachers are the one who should strive for the 'recognition' (the certificate or other award) of teaching effectively - and sensitively - across the whole class!

    1. Thank you, Debbie. I appreciate your support on this issue.

  2. Glad to hear others share this view. In my book 'Language for Life', I wrote from my experiences as a mother of a left-handed child:

    "Despite a growing body of research in the field of language impairment, we still have an education system that favours certain cognitive abilities whilst neglecting certain others. The English writing system, for example, was developed to favour right-handed people, since they form the majority. Left-handed people often struggle with handwriting as a result. To this day, left-handed people are still penalized in primary schools who run ludicrous ‘pen licence’ schemes for neat writers. This happens mostly in the absence of explicit teaching for lefties.

    A pen licence scheme is a discriminatory, arbitrary set of conditions posed on primary school children which prevents them from writing with their implement of choice until they satisfy some illogical standard of graphic excellence."

    1. Thank you, Lyn. This blog has certainly made me see that there are so many different variables. Before writing it, I hadn't considered how the pen licence would affect left-handed students.

  3. Thanks for the honesty of this post - and I have great empathy with your pain. I worry about the imposition of any "ranking" system in this way esp. when this is imposed by a system according to their rules rather than any choice of the child. Comparisons are often made to sport where there are league tables etc... but these tend to be things people choose rather than are imposed.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I agree. My main issue is how is always visible and constantly there with a pen licence. You lose a game once. It might be remembered once or twice, but fail to get a pen licence and you are reminded of it every day and in every lesson.

  4. Very timely to come across this article. The first pen licence was handed out in my daughter's class last week. My 10 year old dyslexic daughter is shattered not to have been one of the first to receive this honour when she works so hard on her hand writing....another kick for her. To her its another failure despite such hard work and persaverance.

  5. I read your article with a constantly nodding head. 'Pen Licence' AKA 'Pencil Persecution'! I honestly think that the idea was introduced as a genuine means of improving handwriting by a busy primary teacher with all of those 'primary plates to spin'or a 'consultant' not realising the impact this would have on some pupils.
    Unfortunately, however, the repercussions of NOT getting your license are more likely to put you off writing for life than to inspire you to improve due to the possible stigma!
    Any child with barriers in transcriptional skills (hence - having to try harder to achieve in this area) are stuck writing with their pencil, whilst those who find writing straight forward are rewarded with their pen license - thus widening the gap and highlighting the problem. Anyone who has attempted a sustained piece of writing with a blunt school pencil will know how difficult this is - it makes your hand ache! Writing with a pen can be so much easier.
    Hence, at my school, all pupils in one class either write with a pen or pencil and we are trialling a variety of pens in some year groups to find the best for the job.
    I will safely bet that if you ask your child without the pen license to write with a pen and then compare this with their pencil script - you will see a marked improvement in what is produced!
    It might be worth showing the school these two examples and asking if your child can write with pen as this makes writing easier for them and makes it visibly more legible.

  6. I would tell your daughter that Roald Dahl always wrote with pencils (with a rubber on one end) throughout his career - and he was the greatest writer on Earth (imho)!

    1. Love that advice. My daughter would agree he was the greatest writer.

  7. What frustrates me as a secondary teacher and mum of a Dyslexic 12 yo son, is that the purpose of the "pen licence" is for children to achieve a standard in pencil before moving on to a pen. So my son received his pen licence on the LAST day of primary school and was then sent off the secondary school having NEVER used a pen for long periods of time or for purposeful writing. His hand writing is understandingly underdeveloped and now, with no experience he is in a situation where pen is the norm, and students are expected to use one all the time. For assessments, if students submit in pencil, they are asked to re-submit or given zero. This is common practice. So if the goal is actually to prepare students for the future (high school, work...) then once students have learnt to write functionally, then they should be taught how to navigate the skill using a pen. Practice how to correct errors, avoid smudging (I'm a left hander), refine grip... I actually had this conversation with my son's school and they have now moved the pen licence forward so that all students achieve it early in yr 6, so can have some time to use it in primary school. Sometimes we are so focused on the process that we forget what the goal is!

  8. I love this post. I think too often that we, as adults, belittle the problems of our children and laugh them away, as if to say 'she'll realise how ridiculous this is when she grows up'. We forget how we, ourselves, felt when we were young. Childhood is already a constant struggle of trying to fit in, and often failing. Maybe the pen licence is simply adding to this.

  9. You have changed my mind about pen licenses from this post. It has also given me some food for thought. I am a music teacher and we do "Recorder Karate" in Year 3. When they pass their colored belts we give them a colored hair bobble to put on their recorder. It has certainly improved performance and attainment (the kids really want to get them) but it is a visual reminder of who is at the top and who is at the bottom. And yes we have had some tears from some pupils trying their best and just not quite being able to pass the belt.

  10. Love this blog! Absolutely true. My daughter, now age 18, used to regularly get told off for using a pen for her homework because I strongly disagreed with the pen licence. I would not restrict my daughter's 'Art' resources because someone doesn't feel that she is a good enough writer. Needless to say, she is now top in her class in English literacy at college and planning on being an author. She has ADHD and ASD with slow mental processing so often had to rush her work to keep up and made lots of mistakes due to poor concentration. She also had weak hand muscles and coordination difficulties so poor presentation was the reason she wasn't one of the first to get a pen licence!
    Now I have a son who is Dyspraxic and if he wasn't home educated, would have had the same struggles. He has had his pen licence since he was a toddler and can write with whatever materials he wishes to. I do agree with the above also that it creates a negative view of using a pencil as well (an amazing and important tool for art!

  11. great post. I fully agree with the post and the comments. Particularly the one about it not preparing for secondary. One thing you mentioned jumped out at me as a maths teacher. "Pencils are for babies". This is something the pen license embeds early and I have had real trouble undoing this. I've taught mamy students, as old as year 13, who r3fuse to use pencil for anything because "Pencils are for babies sir", some even mentioning the pen license. This xan be an issue when they need to draw graphs and or pther diagrams in their maths exams.

  12. imho, a pen licence shouldn't be needed. I think that once children reach a certain age, they can start using pens if they want to. writing with a pen is compulsory in secondary school, why make it harder to learn how to use a pen in primary?