I’m sure many of your will have noticed that The Society of Authors has written to schools minister Nick Gibb offering advice on how to support reading and literacy in education. The full letter is full of common sense suggestions – ideas that are absolutely achievable, that are not cost heavy, and that will make an immediate and noticeable impact.
SoA’s letter urges Gibb to support children’s literacy by making school libraries a statuary requirement in both primary and secondary schools. Wait, what? The news that it wasn’t legal requirement to have a library in schools was a complete shock to me. My experience has largely been in the primary system and all the schools that I have been lucky enough to spend time with have had a library – or at least a space dedicated to reading.
A school without a library? Throw out the chairs and chalk as well. The importance of libraries should not to be underestimated; whilst they may not have the formality of the classroom they are teaching and learning environments where children are exposed to new and exciting ideas, where they grapple with the unknown, and where, most importantly they embrace an independence of action and intention.
Unless you are lying prone on the floor with books being flung at your head, it is very difficult to be a passive learner in a library. Children must decide on the books they want to read, seek them out, browse titles, stretch fingertips up to top shelves and crouch into boxes bursting with books. They hide in corners, slump into cushions or secrete the newly found gems into book bags, satchels, under jumpers or down trousers (it has been known).
SoA general secretary Nicola Solomon told Gibb that school libraries and services have been ‘undervalued and neglected’ over the past decade and furthermore cites the 2010 School Libraries Commission survey that suggests that ‘young people who read above the expected level for their age are twice as likely as young people who read below their age to be school library users.’
I have a moment’s hesitation here – I’m not sure forcing children who don’t read into the library is necessarily the way forward. Which brings me to SoA’s second point. Teachers must be supported in encouraging reading for pleasure. Apparently 3.8 million children in the UK do not own a book. 1 in 3. Say that out loud. One child in every three does not own a book. Ten children in every class. Not even Where’s Wally. And that doesn’t even have words. And if children have the pester power to earn themselves Flufflings and Kung Zhu Hamster’s then surely if they really wanted they could nag, beg, and worry for half an hour in Waterstones? Before we give children books, they have to want them.
Reading for learning is a different beast to reading for deciphering. I have already made my views very clear on phonics. And whole heartedly agree with SoA’s second point. Teachers must inspire a love of reading in their fledgling book-worms. I was lucky enough to undertake my PGCE at the University of Cambridge’s where the course has achieved outstanding in all areas and the tutors are dedicated to promoting a love of literature, not just of letters. But this is not yet standard. If the government are willing to legislate on phonics then surely reading for pleasure should receive the same treatment? If teachers lead by example then children will follow into an infinity of imagined universes, and what better education then one that can continue once the school gates are long distant?
SoA’s final point is one that is music to the Hot Key Ears. Author visits should be OFSTED accredited – they should not be seen as time ‘lost’ from learning, but moments to build memories. School visits are so important, whether from an author, illustrator, publisher or any other industry expert. I spent 6 weeks in a school where the local librarian’s visit was the most exciting thing that happened that term.He showed off his shiny books, he read a story and the children joined in. There were no pyrotechnics, no blow-up football goals (I was also witness to the chaos of this assembly) and there were no dancing girls (X-Factor you have driven these children’s expectations so high that if Nicki Minaj isn’t cavorting semi-naked behind the Head delivering the Monday morning notices they are sorely disappointed). But the children loved him. They adored him. And they all wanted to read the books he so kindly left behind.
We can only hope that Nick Gibb pays heed to Nicola Solomon’s excellent letter. She is spot on. Forget stricter discipline, longer working hours, or lengthy phonics tests. What children need are books, a place to read them, and a spark of inspiration. Universal access to great libraries must be the first stepping stone along this path.