The Rise and Rise of Regulated Reading
Well, finally it’s arrived. By way of multiple press-leaks, which is the closest He-of-the-Quiff comes to consultation these days, the list of prescribed books for the Nation’s schoolchildren has now been laid out in full… hedged about with suitable provisos, of course. As The Times was quick to point out in its leader of 8th January, `there isbound to be an unsavoury hint of totalitarianism about any government that seeks to control what happens in the classroom’. In this case, however, the seekers-after-control being such conspicuously Good Chaps in the estimate of The Times, we’re told we need have no fear. After all, the leader continues, `it is intended to be only a small part of the English programme and to ensure that all children have at least a taste of these recommended authors’. So that’s all right, then.
What happens if, in some future political upheaval quite unimaginable at present, an alternative orthodoxy insists on adding to these recommended authors or even re-writing the list altogether?
Worry not. This is The Times, remember. Its leader-writer has thought of that:
`Once the government has injected some sensible guidelines into the curriculum, it ought to be able to withdraw from this contentious area. This anthology is welcome. May it also be the last of its kind.’ [our italics]
Thus, in one deft sentence, is a canon established forever – without the slightest hint of unsavoury totalitarianism, you understand. BfK readers who can send us a better example of double-think outside the pages of Orwell’s 1984 will receive a year’s free subscription to the magazine.
Luckily, objectors to the Government’s increasing authoritarianism in educational matters (‘corrective interference’ is the term preferred by The Times) are growing in number. Professor Brian Cox, for example – remember him? – has predicted `a major decline in literacy’ as a consequence of the new draft Orders in English. Even Sheila Lawlor of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies has condemned the latest revisions for being too prescriptive. `A national curriculum should set out a minimum that children should have to master. Teachers should then be able to achieve that in the way they think best,’ she commented. No doubt John Patten will dismiss both with the same word he applied recently to a group of parents who dared disagree with him… neanderthal’.
Oh dear. In that case, he’ll find most of this issue downright palaeolithic. Page after page reflects a preoccupation with freedom, with choice and with the importance of sheer diversity in our approach to children’s reading. Does this mean we reject the contribution of `The Classics’? Not a bit… only 18 months ago, in BfK 71 (November’ 91) we devoted the whole magazine to promoting them in every possible way. There’s a world of difference, though, between Government-approved nostalgia trips down Heritage Lane and the sort of all-round awareness and personal engagement we were proposing. Why, Victor Watson actually began our own leading-article on the subject with the remark, `I was relieved that the question I have to consider is: What makes a children’s classic? – and not: What are the children’s classics?. On the second question, no two readers would ever agree.’ Poor Victor! Incorrigibly open-minded as he is, he’ll never be a Government Adviser.
The pages that follow, then, should be treated as a SAT-free zone. Readers are invited to ponder, to query, to disagree, to come up with their own conclusions. On offer are Mike Rosen’s powerful interrogation of the place of books in schools (pages 4-6), Jill Coleman’s insider’s account of the effect of the National Curriculum on a particular publishing house (pages 24-25), Gordon Dennis’s celebration of the verse of Vernon Scannell (pages 26-27), and the description by Lucy Love et al of a particular initiative by one of the country’s much-threatened School’s Library Services (pages 18-19).
Yet BfK doesn’t assume or require compliance with the views expressed by its feature-writers any more than with those of Margaret Clark, Morag Styles and the other reviewers who appear here. For all we know, some readers may even dissent from Colin Mills’ high opinion of the work of Michael Morpurgo (see our Authorgraph, centre-spread) though we’ll take some convincing about that. In the glorious argy-bargy of Art – which, at their best, is what children’s books are – no judgement, however exalted, is beyond dispute.
There’s one belief, mind you, which almost all our contributors share – along with most of our readers probably. As we move into an age when a ‘virtual-reality’ room will be as common in every household as computer-games, videos and multi-channel radio and television, it’ll be harder than ever for books to win and retain readers… and we’re convinced the best hope for their survival lies squarely in delight not doctrine.
How sad for us all, whatever our political persuasion, that the Government prefers it the other way round.