I was in a lovely modern school yesterday that has centralised heating.
No, I don’t mean ‘central heating’, I mean ‘centralised heating’. The school’s heating system is remotely controlled from local authority headquarters.
I’m sure this seemed like a great idea to whichever idiot thought of it. Give the heating controls to the people who are responsible for the heating budget, and they can make sure nobody wastes precious energy or sets the radiators to an unauthorised temperature.
Of course, the actual result is that when the building is so warm that the people who work there are physically uncomfortable, there’s not a thing they can do about it.
“Hello? Local authority? Could you turn our heating down, please? It’s too hot.”
“Not according to the thermostat reading. It’s well within the limits of acceptable temperature as specified by council guidelines.”
“But it’s too hot! I mean, it feels too hot!”
“Hmmm... no, it’s definitely okay. If it gets too hot we’ll turn it down.”
“But it’s too hot now!”
“No, not according to the readout...”
Sadly, this sort of madness has been standard in the world of education for years. Although it’s rarely affected the physical environment in quite this way, it has had a potentially devastating effect on the reading environment. Whitehall bean-counters centrally control the teaching of literacy, prescribing from afar approaches that may make sense from the safety of an office in the Department for Ridiculous Ideas but seem completely crazy to those trying to apply them to the education of real children in real schools.
On Sunday evening, for instance, I met a trainee teacher who told me that she has to teach seven-year-olds to talk about ‘temporal connectives’. Seven-year-olds! Why on earth should any child of that age need to know what temporal connectives are (and for those of you who, like me, might have imagined them to be eerily glowing things used by the Doctor to repair his Tardis: it means words like ‘before’ and ‘when’)? Like most sensible professionals working with children of that age, she’d rather be giving them opportunities to play imaginatively and extend their capacity for creativity, not to mention reading them stories that will make them stare in wonder or giggle with surprise. Someone who has never met them, however, has decided what they need; and what they need, apparently, is to be taught to parrot useless phrases in some grotesque parody of premature linguistic analysis.
Where once teachers would reward their classes by reading them stories, now children must reward their teacher for reading them stories or even just fragments of stories: by analysing the texts, by counting the fullstops or replacing the describing words or any one of dozens of other exercises which might be of some use when a child is developmentally ready for this sort of intellectual dissection but which are worse than useless to young children who need first and foremost to develop their imaginations and their love of reading. And if, every time a child - especially one from a background where stories and books are not loved and valued for their own sakes - is read a story, he is then expected to produce a piece of work which is beyond him or for which he can’t see the point, he will quickly learn to see stories not as sources of pleasure but as instruments of torture.
Like centralised heating, centralised reading strategies are a lousy idea. Our children don’t need a primary education system which places the controls in the hands of nameless strangers who have never met them and have no idea of who they are. They need an education in which the development of the love of reading is placed at the centre - and in which the people working in the classroom are the ones with their hands on the controls.