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Leeds is making its mark on education research

 February 20, 2019 | Bronte Reilly


Have you found yourself at one time or another squinting at something scribbled down in haste, thinking ‘What on earth does that say?’ Or made a joke that someone ‘ought to have been a doctor with that handwriting’? Perhaps we all feel we could write more neatly, but for some young children, this is a more serious issue.

Handwriting is a complex skill to acquire. It involves not only the ability to use the small muscles and sensations in the hand to manipulate a pencil, but hand-eye co-ordination and being able to correctly interpret shapes. It places a heavy load on memory, and if a child is finding the process of learning to write hard, it can take their attention away from what they are writing and their ability to connect and communicate ideas.

Developmental delay in any of these areas can have a big impact on learning to write. Work is more likely to be deemed poor regardless of a child’s understanding of a given topic because it is hard to read and less well composed.

Schools around the United Kingdom see this issue play out in their classrooms every day. Many have handwriting policies, recognising the centrality of clear handwriting to pupil’s school work, but lack specialist guidance, materials, or training to tackle the problem.

Enter ‘Helping Handwriting SHINE’, a project run by the University of Leeds and supported by the Education Endowment Foundation. A year-long training and support programme is being delivered to schools in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, and Newcastle to see if equipping teaching staff with skills and techniques used by Occupational Therapists will mean they can give their pupils early and targeted support to improve their handwriting, and do better in school.

The project team is about as ‘Leeds’ as you can get. The intervention itself was designed by Dr Katy Shire during her PhD at the University of Leeds (Psychology 2015). Working alongside Katy and other University academics is advisor Charlotte Clowes, a University of Leeds alumna (Education 2003), and former primary school teacher. Charlotte began working on the project as Director of Aspirer Teaching School and is now Headteacher of The Wilmslow Academy, a large Primary School in Cheshire. She has been able combine her knowledge about what will work in a classroom with that of Emeritus Professor David Sugden. His research track-record in developmental psychology, special education and physical education includes being the co-author of the seminal ‘Movement ABC-2’ test. He was Acting Vice Chancellor of the University, as well as a previous Pro Vice Chancellor, Dean of three separate faculties and Head of School of Education.

Project officer Jo Atkinson explains more; “As a Children’s Occupational Therapist it was an amazing opportunity to work on a project that could potentially see children’s handwriting skills development supported in school and early on, rather than after potentially long periods of waiting after a referral for specialist treatment. I was a bit star-struck when I met David. As a clinician, we use the Movement Assessment Battery for Children in daily practice to assess children’s needs; we teach it to our student occupational therapists. Getting to work with one of the first authors was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Chair of Cognitive Psychology and academic lead for the project said; “It’s rare that we have the opportunity to bring together so much expertise in one project to powerfully focus on ways we can make simple, positive changes for children’s health and education. Both Charlotte and David have made huge contributions in national understanding of fine motor skills development and the importance of supporting handwriting development as a skill. We are also extremely fortunate in having of Jo and Emily Williams as our project officers, bringing their expertise in occupational therapy and experimental psychology to help schools understand how important this type of support can be.”

  • Training sessions for schools involved in the trial started in October 2018, with follow up sessions underway now. The trial will conclude in July to coincide with the end of the current school year, after which the project will be independently evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research, and results of its conclusions published and disseminated by the Education Endowment Foundation.
Leeds is making its mark on education research