In the last few years a change has taken place in the relationship between schools and books.
I was at school between 1950 and 1964. I’m fairly certain that at no time before the sixth form did anyone either direct me towards any books to read outside of school, nor for that matter did they ask me what I was reading in my own time. My schools were state infant, junior and grammar schools in a largely middle class area in North West London. It’s important to be clear about this because it’s now become commonplace for politicians and journalists to refer to some kind of educational golden age where there was 100% literacy, where everybody could read, did read and schools were ‘doing their job’. In the schools I attended this most certainly wasn’t the case. There was a resistant cluster, who as I remember couldn’t read at all – they were omitted when we read round the class out of ‘Beacon Readers’. There was another group who found it very difficult – they stumbled and ground to a halt in these read-around sessions and the rest of us were given the space to snigger at them. In the fourth year at my junior school, there were two classes of over 40 children. Something like 25 of us passed the 11-plus. Because my class was where the 25 lived – the ‘A’ stream – most of the time in school was spent doing maths. All of every morning in fact. This was because the 11-plus was one third maths and one third formal logic, intelligence tests.
In essence, then, my primary school, along with hundreds of others, didn’t see how what we would in normal speech call a ‘book’ had much of a part to play in education.
Later, at my grammar school, books – albeit often of a very specific kind – put in more of an appearance. We were encouraged to use the school library, there were class readers for English – Jim Davis by John Masefield, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the New Testament in RE and text books, text books and text books. These we had on one term or one year loan, we put our names in them and they covered Maths, Geography, History, the Sciences and languages. I recollect one English teacher urging us to read out of school, but he himself didn’t initiate any discussion around our home reading or introduce books to us in lesson time to read at home apart from the class reader.
Luckily, my out of school literacy experience by this time was very wide-ranging, supported and scrutinised by my parents: ‘I think it’s time you gave Thomas Hardy a go’. ‘Alec McCowen is playing Malvolio – I think you’ll like it.’… That sort of thing. However, it wasn’t until I reached the sixth form that I was exposed to any kind of home-school continuum in reading: Mike Benton, producer of many school anthologies of poetry since then, taught me English and sent us off to the library to read criticism. Only then was I initiated into using more than one text for essays: Cambridge European History and Brogan on French history, for instance.
I labour this point in order to show that the misty-eyed view of education, especially grammar school education, that we hear from such people as Kenneth Clarke has to be qualified… At my grammar school over 60% of the students left in advance of the sixth form, before these later initiations I’ve just described came into play. In other words, the formalised and structured use of a variety of books to support learning in schools only arrived when the school population had been weeded down to less than 10% of pupils in state schools.
Between the time I left primary school in 1957 and the arrival of what Professor Ted Wragg has called Mad Curriculum Disease, huge changes took place in attitudes to literacy, children’s books and children. These changes can be traced by taking a quick look at the new and expanded institutions that grew up at this time: school libraries in every school, class libraries, school bookshops, professional school librarians, a library support service from local libraries, teacher-parent reading programmes, the National Federation of Children’s Book Groups, Children’s Book Week and so on.
Magazines and book clubs grew up to support and inform these changes: Books for Keeps, Books For Your Children, Dragon’s Teeth, Letterbox Library and the now defunct Children’s Rights Workshop. Why am I describing what is to many of us so familiar? To remind us, to remind myself that all these features that surround us and support the reading of books are relatively new, were fought for by educationists, librarians and parents spending many, many hours of unpaid time.
The domination in children’s books of all kinds by white middle class life-styles, heroes and heroines, anglo-centric perspectives on the rest of the world, white view of the third world – all these were challenged. One of my Christmas presents as a child had been the Puffin book, Malay Adventure:
Here and there they passed a group of broken-down huts, located beside a filthy pool of stagnant water, which smelt most foully.
‘How can anyone bear to live there?’ asked Brian.
‘Only a Chinaman could,’ Chapman admitted, ‘it would kill anyone else. But they don’t seem to mind either dirt or discomfort. As for smells, the worse they are the more they seem to like them.’
‘Perhaps the Chinese nose is fitted with a special filter, ‘suggested Willem.
‘Perhaps so, but it must be a particularly effective one – a semi-permeable membrane, maybe.’
In these times of mocking PC, political correctness, it does us no harm to remind ourselves that this was the political correctness of only a few years ago.
But let me return to the changes – totally out of reach of government directives – autonomous networks of information and self-education that sprang up around teachers’ centres, libraries and teachers’ associations like the National Association of Teachers of English and magazines.
It’ll be seen in years to come, more clearly than now perhaps, that all this had a profound effect on what was written, who was writing, what was published and who was reading. We were on the verge, or perhaps in the middle, of a truly popular culture.
Yet this same period has been characterised recently in precisely the opposite terms – as the lost generation, a time when the adults concerned with children’s literacy have failed. Let two things be said here:
(i) there is no valid evidence whatsoever for this;
(ii) any changes in literacy cannot possibly be attributed to one or other teaching method since the number of variables affecting children’s literacy is so great – numbers of children for whom English is a second language, the increase or decrease of home support, the rapid turnover of teachers in one area as opposed to another and so on.
More than that, the teaching methods described under such headings as `progressive’ or `look and say’ are in fact so diverse that one-to-one correlations are not worth the paper they are written on.
We can be certain of one thing, though: this Government, in spite of all the rhetoric concerning literacy levels, has declared war on the reading of books. Let’s look at their weapons:
- the closing of public libraries
- the elimination of the library support services
- the forced amateuring of school librarians – professionals can’t be afforded
- budget restrictions on school book buying as documented by the NAS/UWT and the Children’s Book Foundation
- the domination of fixed courses of study, set texts and testing that limit casual and pupil-led reading and browsing
- the contract arrangement with teachers that has resulted in a huge decrease in after-hours cultural activities
- the elimination of text books for home reading and the consequent rise of the work-sheet.
This list is having and is going to have more effect than the sum of its parts. We are at this moment witnessing the elimination of a cadre of expertise that has informed and supported teachers in the hunt for books to suit the individual children in their classes. This matches the return of an idea of children’s literature based on English Heritage – the idea that we are not entitled to be full members of British society unless we’ve been forced to read Wind in the Willowsand, as Norman Tebbitt would put it, support the England cricket team no matter what culture we belong to.
In addition school budgets available for buying books are now less. This has a direct class effect. Schools in middle class areas get subsidised to the tune of thousands of pounds. My step-daughter’s school has raised something like £15,000 for a new school library from parents. Schools in working-class areas just have to lump it. At the secondary level, the removal of 100% coursework at GCSE, the arrival of compulsory Shakespeare for 13-16 year-olds, the narrowing down of set texts are all acts that discourage, not encourage, autonomous reading. This is matched by the elimination of coursework in other subjects, too. In order to do his coursework project on Science, my son had to read a book on the thyroid gland – not a text book – and a chapter in a text book from the library on the endocrine system. For his empathy work on the London blitz, a six-page diary – he read six or seven eye-witness accounts bought from the local community bookshops, THAP and Centreprise, and a chapter or two from A J P Taylor.
All this is under attack as we restrict our children to the photocopied sheet, the worksheet, the set text, the removal of coursework, and the constant testing and examining.
It’s a dispiriting picture. Middle-class parents like me can and do compensate like crazy. We pile off to our local bookshop and buy the text book that the teacher is photocopying page by page. We buy one or two more in order to show our children that knowledge is not finite, absolute and restricted to one authority. We take our children to the theatre so that the cloze procedure on Shakespeare -‘To be or not to blank’ (fill in the missing word) is supported by flesh and blood actors and emotions. We pull books off our shelves and say: `First World War? Try Siegfried Sassoon.’ With our smaller children, for every Peg and Jack and Jack and Mac they are sent home with by curriculum-dominated teachers, we read ten real books. We get in the Beano and Snap, and Tintin and Asterix, too.
In summary, what is happening, is that the access to books for working-class children is being limited by the day. That moment, that beginning of a child’s literary popular culture is being wiped out. If there aren’t the librarians, school bookshops, flexible school curricula and knowledgeable teachers to introduce, say, No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock by John Agard and Grace Nichols, or Daz 4 Zoe by Robert Swindells, then the vast majority of children will not come across them in their lives. Yet it is books like these that made and make children’s literature what I keep calling a popular culture: wide-ranging, inclusive, with roots in popular speech and popular forms of discourse.
Now, let’s get this into perspective. No one will die as a result of all this. The world is in a terrible condition and we are living in Britain at a time when people can die of hypothermia while there is coal in the ground and miners are out-of-work.
Nor for that matter is the class-effect of what I’ve described particularly new. Schooling in this society has always meant the classing of children. It is through the school system from private, through the selective, the religious, and the sump schools that children are graded to slot into society’s class system. Within schools, the streaming and classing of pupils goes on apace with assessment hitting kids so often and so fast it is occupying weeks and weeks of teacher/student time at all levels. My step-daughter, aged 14, will have been assessed six times in two years by the time she is sixteen.
What’s more, the reading of books is no guarantee against barbarism nor is the not-reading of books evidence of barbarity. The man who rang me recently one night at 9.35 and said, ‘Is that Michael Rosen?’, ‘Yes’, ‘You filthy fucking Jew…’ (I then put the phone down), would, if true to type, be highly literate in racist, fascist and antisemitic literature. Clearly, compassion, courage in the face of brutality, honest-dealing, and a whole gamut of desirable actions do not depend on our being active readers.
What follows from this is that in opposing what the Government is doing to the reading of books for all children, and working-class children in particular, we have to be quite clear, and much clearer than we have been in the past, about why we are defending book-reading.
We can say that the book has a kind of informal autonomy not matched by other media. You can take it with you, you can skip read it more quickly on a first reading than a film, TV or radio. You can mark it and refer to it, and read from it more conveniently than other media. You can scan a range of books, their content and their style more quickly than say a pile of videos. You can cross-check, cross-reference more easily when you’re considering anything you’re interested in whether it’s for a formal essay or for your own interest. In other words books can put you just that bit more in charge of the form.
It’s also now commonplace in theory to dwell on reading as a creative act – an imaginative re-creation of text with the tools of previous texts and knowledge doing the work. All reading – no matter how directive and limited relies on shared meaning. If I say: ‘Do you know the joke about butter? No? I won’t tell it to you or you might spread it… ‘ then clearly for the joke to work you have to know what butter is.
This recreative act has been described in wholesome terms on its own merit. In addition to this it has been said that reading opens up new possibilities. As we read we are able to try out emotions and actions in the safety of our own home, as the ads used to say. It provides a safe context to experience the dangerous, the absurd and whatever emotion the text suggests without having to suffer or get egg on our face. What would it be like to face up to something really dangerous like a wolf in your grannie’s bonnet? What would it be like to discover that your father was killed by your mother’s present husband? Read and find out.
I would agree with all these defences, these ‘apologies’ for literature, but as educators, writers and mediators I think we should be saying more than this.
The Government, through its English studies junta in particular, is positing a model of reading based on authority. The set text, the cloze procedure and the removal of the expertise to help teachers and pupils into personable reading, is a way of suggesting that books are sites of authority that should not really be challenged. The close-ended questions of the worksheets are the same. ‘Describe socialisation’, for example. No suggestion here that socialisation is itself a problematic concept.
Hence the ‘good things’ about reading I’ve mentioned – the recreative, possibility-opening, autonomy-encouraging features – are not sufficient to oppose the authoritarian mode.
What we need is more cogent defence of reading than we have so far. And we can only find this when the humanistic arguments we have used so far – autonomy, re-creation, imagination, possibility-showing – are put into the context in which the options and choices available to us in society are seen as differentially distributed. What those of us who create and mediate writing for children need to proclaim is that:
A) We have to make as wide a range of experiences as possible available to children – ones that include all the culture and classes of the children themselves. This doesn’t simply mean writing them, it now means fighting to save every part of the elaborate support structure I described earlier, because it’s mainly through that structure that children receive the multicultural, the off-beat, and the dissident. They could not find those texts without the support structure.
B) In a society where it’s possible for there to be miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham 6, swindlers like Robert Maxwell or for millionaires to sack miners, and the stroke of a pen to turn away asylum seekers… in a society like that we are in desperate need for millions of people with the ability to interrogate texts – where text means every form of discourse from the teenage magazine to the politician’s speech, the benefit entitlement form, or Hamlet. Of course, in one sense, we interrogate every text from the moment we hear and read. What I’m talking about is a widening and deepening of that interrogation which can only come about if we are given a wide and deep range of texts, where we can learn how to cross-reference from non-fiction to fiction, from TV to poetry from one text to another that directly contradicts it.
I once came home with an essay to do on the Chartists. ‘What’s your essay?’ my father asked. ‘Why Chartism failed.’ ‘Failed?’ he said. ‘Failed? Who said it failed?’
The moment we learn that authority does not lie in one source; that it doesn’t necessarily lie in one book, one film, one magazine or one politician’s statement then a qualitative change comes over us. It makes it more possible for us to question what we read and team.
We are moving into a situation where children are to be presented with absolute truths absolutely – single texts, compulsorily read. And yet it is clear every day that single truths are not the way of the world. Open today’s paper and discover that the man our leaders told us was second only to Hitler in his barbarity was being supplied with arms by these very same leaders so that he could kill civilians. And more, our leaders bust a gut trying to prevent us from knowing about it.
We are in desperate need for millions of people to interrogate this and imagine new possibilities, alternatives, other ways of going on. A humanistic defence of literature is not sufficient to bring this about. We need to insist that reading means: cultural cross-referencing, contrasting of oppositional texts, resourcing alternative views, and making space in classrooms for the socialised interpretation of multiple meanings.
That’s what we need in an unequal world and it’s something we have to organise ourselves into getting. We need, in short, to bring books – not political dogma – back into schools again.
This article is a condensed version of a talk given to the Children’s Book Circle in November 1992. The full text will be published in the May 1993 issue of Signal.
Michael Rosen’s latest book of poetry, Mind the Gap, illustrated by Caroline Holden, is published by Scholastic ‘Adlib’ (0 590 55012 8, £4.99) and he has recently edited a new anthology, Action Replay (0 670 83837 3, £6.50) for Viking Kestrel.
No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock is published by Viking, 0 670 82661 8, £7.99; Puffin, 0 14 034027 0, £2.50 pbk
Daz 4 Zoe is published by Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12898 6, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 034320 2, £3.99 pbk