The secret of school success lies partly in the pencil case

Experts advise on the right kind of pencil, as Britain's standing in Europe shows a statistical improvement
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Children's progress at school is determined partly by the contents of their pencil cases, a child development expert said yesterday.

Children's progress at school is determined partly by the contents of their pencil cases, a child development expert said yesterday.

As thousands of children prepared to start school next week, Dr Rhona Stainthorp of London University's Institute of Education spoke of the perils of using the wrong kind of pencil.

Even the absence of a pencil sharpener could be critical; the child's handwriting may be poor because of a blunt lead, she said. And too many coloured pencils may also hinder progress if pupils are diverted from the important matter of the three Rs to choosing whether to use the blue or green one next.

Children aged between five and seven, she argued, needed a pencil with a triangular cross-section, not an ordinary hexagonal one, if they were to become quick and enthusiastic writers. Some experts have suggested that bad handwriting means lower grades in exams.

Dr Stainthorp said: "Children need to know how to move a pencil using just the thumb, first finger and middle finger. If you have a triangular pencil, it is easy to see where to put each of those digits. Some children try to write with four or five fingers scrunched up. It is harder and you don't have as much control."

Mastering the art of sharpening a pencil - a two-handed action - is also important. Dr Stainthorp, a member of the Handwriting Interest Group, said: "A blunt instrument gives a fuzzy line and children tend to start writing even bigger."Wax crayons should be left at home in the cupboard. "Even colouring in wax crayon makes children scribble," she said. Felt tips, on the other hand, are getting "better and better".

A rubber has to be reasonably big and it has to work, Dr Stainthorp said. "There are real problems with rubbers. Some schools will say that they don't allow children to rub out anything. On the whole, children need to learn that a little mistake can be crossed out."

This equipment helps a child's educational progress, she said, because it is very important for pupils to be able to write quickly by the time they start taking exams. "We need to get the basic handwriting skills right early on. In terms of your own self-esteem, you need to have a good style before you start using a pen," she said.

Ballpoint pens are out. "Although they offer excellent value for money for older students and adults, they produce a poor line and are difficulty for youngsters to control."

Partners the Stationer, a stationery company, has produced a chart showing what a child's pencil case should contain, based on Dr Stainthorp's advice.

Children aged five to seven need a short, triangular shaft pencil, a small set of coloured pencils, felt tips, a good eraser and pencil sharpener. Those aged seven to 11 need a fountain pen or a fibre-tipped short pen with a triangular barrel, a hexagonal pencil, long coloured pencils, highlighter pens, a clearly numbered rule, compasses, a protractor and an eraser, the company says.