This is my own personal response to the story that came out today about the Education Secretary’s proposal that children should be expected to be reading 50 books a year. I do not speak for all members of Leeds Book Club on my opinion of this matter
So Gove wants school children to read 50 books a year; apparently any child who does not do this has not succeeded at meeting his imaginary ‘bar’ of achievement.
There is nothing amiss with championing a programme that gets young people reading, often for the first time, but by disparaging the former systems as lax and not aiming high enough, Gove is trampling on the work of many dedicated professionals who are unable to promote a love of reading due to lack of resources and places for them to work; namely school librarians.
None of the three major parties in their manifestos would support a motion for a library in every secondary school in the last election. Public libraries now are on the forefront of public services cuts, with various consultations resulting in either closures or opening hours being changed to suit a smaller budget; this will inevitable affect the user base, a good percentage of which are under 18. And yet, miraculously, these children are supposed to find, and afford, fifty books each year, suitable for their reading level, which will sustain their interest and ignite a love of reading in them.
Children who use a public library are also twice as likely to read outside a classroom daily.
Fifty books is a hell of a target. Even avid readers may struggle to complete a novel a week, never mind children who are often working part time, taking exams, and struggling with the pressures of modern day life. Yes there is growing concern that too much time is spent on the internet or staring at a screen, but there is immense social pressure to conform to certain rules, and constantly being available for communication with your peers is, nowadays, one of them. It is hard fitting in quality time dedicated to reading in this environment. One in three children suffers neglect or abuse. It is often hard to find a safe quiet space to read. Cutting opening hours of branch libraries isn’t going to help this. These are issues that the government should be addressing, not adding to the pressure with unrealistic targets, and telling anyone who does to achieve them they are a failure.
Books are also expensive things. Book swaps are growing in popularity, and most classrooms will have a shelf for books to be swapped, but the marketing of the publishing industry-leading to the modern phenomenon of collecting whole series, and related promoted materials a la Twilight or Harry Potter, has turned readers into an advertisers dream. Quick, quick, re-release them with white covers! We’ve got a deficit to fill!
By turning books into collectables in the way of trainers in the 90s it is not the act of reading that is promoted, but the ownership of yet another ultimately disposable product.
Gove is going to be asking popular children’s authors what they think children should be reading, teachers, literacy experts and librarians of course having no experience or knowledge that might be useful in this exercises. This is cult of the celebrity at the extreme. I love the fact that children’s authors are supporting the save libraries protests, but they are not all reading promotion experts; they are writers.
Gove has lauded a school for having a ‘Who Can Read All the Potters The Fastest’ competition; speed reading, skimming and scanning texts for information are valuable skills, often taught by librarians, but surely not to be used in promoting reading for pleasure? By promoting only the basic research skills rather than a critical response to a text brought on by an in-depth reading, Gove is belittling the study of English Literature. Yes students may only read two books for GCSE, I read the one, Lord of the Flies, but I must have read it five or six times, in order to have a true understanding of the text.
I feel for the students at a lower reading level, or students who are physically afraid of books having only even associated them with what may have been to them an abusive and controlling classroom system, struggling to complete this challenge, and the resulting low self esteem and sense of failure that results.
Gove wants to turn us into “Reads and Read-Nots”. We already are seeing book clubs invade the popular consciousness, and that can only be a good thing, but this insistence that it is the quantity and the quality of what you are reading, rather than the fact that you are reading in the first place that makes you successful is wrong, and snobbish.
The Reading Agency started the Six Book Challenge back in 2008. The idea was promoting reading for pleasure to adults helps pick up where schools, or at least the school system, may have failed in enticing people into books. The classroom system, often divided into “sets” does not work for everybody. The Six Book Challenge is phenomenally successful in getting adults into reading; 7000 in its first year alone. Now colleges, libraries, work places and other organisations promote reading for pleasure, often at targets lower than six books in six months, which for some is an intimidating and off-putting target, which if not achieved leads to greater feelings of failure and lack of self-belief.
If we are to make ourselves a nation of readers, then let us do this by supporting each other, and learning from each other, not setting our children at even greater competition. Let us celebrate the act of reading for pleasure; not the scale at which it is done.