Nicky Morgan’s Panacea for Encouraging Reading in Schools

dickens[Above image of a young Charles Dickens used in today’s BBC News Education report]

Nicky Morgan’s urgings today that major publishers cut the price of ‘classic’ novels to encourage reading in schools and, presumably, at home is surely no more than a soundbite.

As Education Secretary, though bland and meaningless in terms of her impact and effectiveness since holding this office, one assumes there is some element of genuine truth in her wanting to improve reading among the country’s young, and beyond. But extolling the virtues of ‘classic’ novels as a catalyst for this is, well, dumb.

Does simplistic sound better for anyone balking at that previous adjective? Perhaps you’d be right, but I have little time for this kind of politicking.

I’ll keep this straightforward: for years Wordsworth Editions Classics series has been competitively priced on the open market – currently at £1.99 – but I remember when these were available not so long ago at £1, and I think it is easily possible to buy in bulk, as schools would, at a significant discount on that current price. The point is, compared with most other contemporary fictions, as well as ‘young person/teenage’ fiction out there, I don’t see much point in making a clarion call about this area of the literary market.

Unless you are after that soundbite. And if you can get a comedian, who has his own book to hawk, to provide a celebrity endorsement.

And the ‘classics’ as catalyst? This is a tricky one to start unpicking critically because in doing so it is easy for other dumb people to characterise any reservation as a ‘progressive’ distaste for heritage and culture and – you know what’s coming – demanding high standards. I see my reservations about the classics as obvious ones, especially in engaging and encouraging further reading primarily in the young: relevance, language, length.

I am not, let’s be clear, banning the ‘classic’ novel from its role in engendering a desire to read – that is something Morgan’s predecessor Gove did. But in deciding a national policy, politicians need to step considerably outside their own narrow experiences. For example, Morgan states ‘Our ambition is that every secondary school should have sets of a wide range of classics so that whole classes can enjoy them together – books I loved as a teenager by authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Emily Bronte’ – such a personal interest doesn’t equate to the realities of the classroom experience, nor more importantly, approaches to encouraging reading for all based on years of educational research, for example individualised programmes [though I have always been somewhat old-fashioned in enjoying reading the class novel].

This isn’t the place to unravel that debate. However, it is a key point because it continues to highlight Morgan’s soundbite approach to curriculum development – and funding – rather than a professional and informed one. Indeed, encouraging reading of a class novel, whether classic or contemporary, doesn’t fit into years of a target culture and preparing for its testing regime: not least KS2 and KS3 Reading tests which have little if anything to do with reading widely for pleasure [surely the fundamental urge behind Morgan’s idea?].

I could go on unpicking the problems with this, not least querying how an emphasis on reading classic novels can be fostered for reading at home. However, I will make clear here that I am a huge fan of classic novels [sounds daft expressed like this….] and sharing/teaching these in the classroom. But this isn’t the panacea Morgan soundbites.

Yes, I have created a new verb.

The other key point is, why isn’t Morgan urging publishers to make ALL fiction, especially contemporary ‘young person/teenage’ novels, more cheaply available to schools? Would that be interfering with the market economy too centrally? Well, even I would say yes to this!

The way to achieve this is for the government to heavily subsidise such published materials for schools. That’s an actual funding policy to underpin and support a genuine curriculum plan for encouraging reading. It does matter that ‘classic’ literature isn’t the impetus for engaging young readers: we need fiction that reflects the lives they live, in the language they speak, in accessible amounts [that doesn’t mean ‘short’]. Such fiction does also need to introduce the young to contemporary lives they do not live/know/understand so that they learn; to use a language that will challenge and inspire and elevate, and in any amount but in a curriculum that values and validates whatever time is needed to read for the sheer pleasure of it.

And this is only scratching the surface of the argument. We need to reopen all the public libraries that have been closed by this Government. Every state school needs a dedicated fulsome library and a dedicated professional librarian. Every state school needs to support reading lessons free from testing and measuring of any kind. Every state school needs to have visiting writers to introduce their writing and to read it and to develop workshops for students to write themselves.

Does this sound complex and demanding? I do concede it would be a lot easier to simply suggest we get publishers to drop the cost of no-copyright-fees-needed ‘classic’ literature for schools and a Bob’s-your-uncle soundbite policy to promote this.

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