Pen licence – Handwriting improver or waste of time?

Selection of pens, representing pen licence

What is the pen licence initiative, and can it genuinely improve handwriting skills? We delve into its benefits and drawbacks…

by Teachwire
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What is a pen licence scheme and does it actually improve handwriting? We investigate the pros and cons…

What is a pen licence?

A pen licence is an informal certification that teachers grant to primary school students. It signifies that a student has achieved a level of handwriting proficiency, allowing them to use a pen instead of a pencil for their schoolwork.

The goal is to encourage neat and legible handwriting. Children typically see receiving a pen licence as a milestone and feel a source of pride.

What year do you get your pen licence?

The year students receive their pen licence can vary depending on a school’s policy. However, schools typically award them in Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6).

Most commonly, students earn their pen licence around Year 3 or Year 4. This is when they have typically developed sufficient handwriting skills to write neatly and legibly with a pen.

How a pen licence scheme can improve handwriting

Consistency is the key to raising handwriting standards, says Louise Sage. Teachers, students and parents all need to be crystal clear of the expectations…

The implementation of the revised National Curriculum in 2014 saw much greater emphasis placed on standards of handwriting. Rightly so – research shows a clear link between children’s ability to write legibly, and their composition and spelling skills.

As the (fairly new) English lead at a small primary school in mid-Essex, it was essential for me to evaluate whether the way we had been teaching handwriting would be effective in helping children to reach these new standards at every stage of their time with us.

Through many discussions with colleagues, observations of lessons, book scrutinies, and studying the exemplar materials, we agreed as a staff that what we could certainly improve on what we were doing.

And so our journey began…

A fresh start

We agreed that the cursive scheme we were using, whereby we taught children from Reception to use lead-ins and lead-outs, was not leading to good handwriting in the later Key Stages.

Over the previous few years there had been changes of staffing and therefore not everyone was on the same page.

I introduced a ‘pen licence’ idea when I joined the school. However this was not working as successfully as I had hoped.

After much research and discussions with other English leaders and teachers, I met with a sales consultant from OUP. They promote a handwriting scheme by Nelson.

This had just been updated to be in line with the new curriculum. It linked handwriting patterns to families and the Letters and Sounds phonics program – a detail which I really liked.

The decision had to be a whole school one, though, so every team leader looked through the materials, including online interactive activities, until we were sure we all felt that this would be an easier and more consistent approach to teaching handwriting.

Pen licence confusion

However, we still needed to resolve the issue of ‘pen licences’. Parents seemed somewhat confused to why some children could write in pen whilst others were never ‘allowed’ to do so.

Teachers were unsure of the criteria for awarding a licence, leading to inconsistency across and within year groups and, in some cases, frustration and upset.

So, the next big question was how to use pen licences more effectively to encourage and motivate our pupils to improve their handwriting skills?

A matter of pride

Whilst stressing our pupils through too much emphasis on passing tests is something we definitely want to avoid, we could definitely see a value in encouraging children to work towards particular fixed goals.

We decided, therefore, that learners from Y2 upwards would be able to earn a pen licence once they could demonstrate they had reached a certain standard of handwriting, which would change for each year group.

Through workshops with parents, clear success criteria in lessons, and a whole school display in the hall on expectations for each year group, we started developing our children’s understanding of what we required of them.

Obviously there are some pupils who have poorer motor control skills and therefore need interventions for handwriting. However, hopefully we pick this up early and put support in place. We do sometimes make allowances for individual cases who make excellent progress.

With the aim that every child should reach at least the age-related expectations regarding handwriting by the end of each academic year, it’s important to instil high standards from day one. It’s not easy to get your pen licence!

Once a pupil meets a certain consistent handwriting style, and can produce this quality across different subjects over a length of time, their class teacher sends them to me to make the important, final decision.

This has created consistency, but also, a real ‘buzz’ around the scheme. Children are constantly asking their teachers to send them to me to show me their writing, of which they are very proud.

They are keen to progress, and presentation has become high priority in our school.

Pen licence certificate

I love visiting different classes, as they always want to show me their amazing writing. We display pen licence certificates in the classrooms or send them home to parents.

Once pupils reach Year 6, they are all automatically issued with a licence and a pen in order to prepare them for secondary school and to enable them to develop character and their own personal style.

However, there are rewards for this cohort, too, as I give out special blue handwriting pens to those who write consistently with joined, cursive style.

Evaluating the impact

In the spring term, an LA review by our local borough commented that “expectations have raised the quality of presentation, demonstrating a pride in work.”

Teachers are feeling extremely positive about the progress being made by their pupils, which is evident in their books.

One KS1 pupil stated, “I worked really hard practising keeping my letters the same and joining up. I feel really great and proud to have a pen licence.”

A KS1 teacher commented on the progress made by her pupils: “Getting rid of break letters and loops has been really effective. Year 1 are beginning to join much earlier than in previous years. Having regular structured sessions and putting practice into application of sentences has seen an huge improvement across KS1 since we started using Nelson.”

One year down the line, we know the introduction of the new handwriting scheme and the improvements of the ‘pen licence’ have been successful, and we are looking forward to continuing the development of even higher standards across the school.

Should pen licence schemes be abolished?

Rewarding those pupils who are more suited to writing is an unnecessarily divisive practice, says one anonymous teacher…

Handwriting. A skill that has always been high on the agenda in primary schools, and one that still gives me the shivers today when I see it approached badly.

To those outside of education, handwriting may seem to be
a dying art. Indeed, with the rise of computers, tablets, and modern technology, why do children need to able to write fluently in cursive by hand? 

In secondary schools, in fact, the idea of cursive handwriting is obsolete. But in primary schools, it is still the Holy Grail, and a target we expect children to achieve if they wish to meet the expected standard in writing in the KS2 SATs.

Archiving pen licences

It’s not cursive handwriting that I have an issue with though; my gripe is around pen licences. It’s 2024 and there are schools out there who still don’t understand why this practice should be archived into the vault of ‘never to return’ alongside triple marking and Brain Gym.

As a child, I was creative. I would write and draw on everything, about everything, everywhere. I remember 
distinctly being around three years old, taking a paper clip and scratching stick people proudly into the wood of my dad’s bureau.

This creativity did not serve me well when I started primary school. I would use both my left and right hand to draw and write, but had not chosen a preferred form.

As draconian as it sounds, I was told it was better to be a right-hander, and was thereafter forced to use my right hand only.

As a result, I never felt comfortable writing by hand, and was made to stay in at break to write ‘better’. In fact, I suspect I probably would have written better if I’d been allowed to use my left hand…

To this day I still do certain things as a left-hander would, including playing guitar and setting knives and forks at a table.

But at school I was never given the freedom to find out the best hand to write with. I was never allowed to use pen in primary school, either, as my writing was ‘too messy’ – and that stigma persists today.

As a teacher, whenever I write on a board or in a WAGOLL book, I still hear that inner doubt. No child should be made to feel this, or carry it into adulthood.

Pen licence obsession

I don’t know exactly when this obsession with perfect cursive handwriting in primary schools started to manifest itself in the issuing of pen licences, but it’s something I see all too often, unfortunately.

Children who are deemed worthy enough can wield a pen in lessons and elevate themselves above their peers with a biro.

Now I know for a fact that ‘child me’ would never have achieved this. Child me got an A* in English lang. and lit. GCSE, despite my appalling handwriting, but child me would not have got a pen licence. My son never did.

It was humiliating and demoralising for him – and totally unnecessary, as the moment he went to secondary school, all students were expected to write with a pen. And not to use cursive handwriting!

Argument against pen licences

My arguments against using pen licences stem from an emotional resonance as a parent and my own background.

Personally, I feel that pen licences are not inclusive. They create segregation in class between peers and they negatively impact self-esteem.

As a teacher, I also know how some of my left-handed pupils struggle to apply adequate pressure with a pencil, but suddenly fly in pen.

How can anyone judge how well they will write in different media until they experiment?

As a teacher I value the discipline of writing in cursive. It trains the brain to learn functional specialism and improves memory and fine motor skills.

I’m not debating the explicit teaching of good handwriting and the impact it has, simply stating that a pen licence has no part in this model.

Just teach children as they pass through primary how to explore different writing tools and what suits them best.

After Year 6, they’ll be writing in pen whether you chose to deny them in primary or not.

The author is a teacher in the UK. 

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