The Return of Common Sense
Our first indication that the battle might have been won was a message on BfK’s answerphone. To begin with, in fact, it was less a message than a fanfare – sounding suspiciously like a combination of Taran-Tara! and Nyeh-Nyeh-Nyeh! After this, in more moderate tones, the voice of Mike Rosen brought advance information from a journalist friend of his that those Lists of recommended books and authors had finally been dropped from Key Stage One and Key Stage Two of the new National Curriculum Orders for English.
Since, like Mike, we’ve campaigned against these abominations from the moment they hove into sight, we were delighted… but also anxious to have the good news confirmed officially. So the report in November 11th’s Times Educational Supplement was most encouraging:
‘exemplary reading lists at key stages 1 and 2 scrapped although categories of fiction and non-fiction have been specified… post-1900 canon at key stages 3 and 4 scrapped but pre-1900 list of authors retained… new exemplary list of four dramatists.’
Finally, in December, we received the ‘second-stage proof copy’ of the document that’s due to be published and distributed to schools in January 1995 and it seemed safe to rejoice in a victory which, if incomplete, is still highly satisfactory.
Of course, the new Orders for English are far from perfect. As Henrietta Dombey, of the University of Brighton, has pointed out, in many respects they fall a long way short of the Cox report (remember Cox?) never mind leaving unresolved the question of how they’re to be assessed. Nonetheless, they are undeniably list-less – at any rate for those crucial years when the reading habit has to be established. At long, long last the Government appears to have accepted that the canonical approach it struggled so hard to impose on teachers is politically objectionable, misunderstands the nature of literary evaluation, breaks that crucial personal bond between a book and an apprentice reader and actually sidelines the working out of a proper reading pedagogy… little things like that. No wonder Mike Rosen whooped a bit when he broke the news. So should we all. Hence a little celebration is called for:
TARAN-TARA! TARAN-TARA! NYEH-NYEH-NYEH!
Now we’re free to get on with the real job.
And the real job, as summarised in the New Orders (unedited version), is as follows:
‘Pupils should be given extensive experience of children’s literature. They should read on their own, with others and to the teacher, from a range of genres that includes, stories, poetry, plays and picture books…’
These materials, furthermore – and let the words ring out loud and clear – should be used to ‘stimulate pupils’ imagination and enthusiasm’ (our italics).
Amen to that, says BfK.
After all, with so much else competing for children’s attention nowadays, it’s only through kindling a genuine enthusiasm for books that we can hope to transform their initial reading into a pleasurable life-long habit. And to do this we need information about what their preferences actually are. Here’s where a team at the Roehampton Institute Children’s Literature Research Centre comes in. Just published is their study Contemporary Juvenile Reading Habits which notes that ‘There has never been a sustained and comprehensive attempt to study children’s reading in Britain.’ The aim is to create a database which, when interrogated, ‘provides a wide range of information and a “snapshot” of contemporary trends in juvenile reading habits’. As such, the survey is hugely ambitious:
‘… what children read;
how they come into contact with a range of reading matter including comics, magazines, special interest periodicals, and information publications;
what their preferences are;
whether they are satisfied with the kinds of publications available to them;
who influences their choice;
how they select what to read;
differences in public and private reading practices;
perceptions of stereotyping (particularly regarding race, class, gender, age, nationality and religion);
actual differences attributable to differences of age, sex, parental occupation and ethnic background;
pass along readership;
reading in relation to other leisure activities, etc.’
Add to these a section for older readers which asks questions about the ways in which reading assists (or not) in helping young people to make sense of an increasingly problematic world and it’s tempting to propose that the study should carry the sub-title ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Children’s Reading’.
So far, admittedly, the investigation is only in its pilot stage. Formats and methodologies are still being tested – in this case via a questionnaire filled in by 300 or so children aged 4-16 in about a dozen schools. The full survey, of over 8,000 children throughout England and Wales, won’t be completed till next year. Already there are hints of intriguing findings, however … about series fiction, for instance, which is reviewed regularly here in BfK and is identified by the researchers as ‘a hugely important part of what young people read and how they choose’. If the Roehampton study manages to deliver even half the facts it promises, we’ll all be greatly in its debt.
Altogether, then, the end of 1994 was pretty up-cheering for anyone who’s open-minded as well as enthusiastic about children and their reading. Why, I almost sent a Christmas card to the DFE.
Let’s hope 1995 is just as propitious.
Happy New Year!
Contemporary Juvenile Reading Habits costs £15.00 from Tony Warshaw, The British Library, RND Department, 2 Sheraton Street, London W1V 4BH.