A primary school literacy co-ordinator recently told me about a project she’d done with her previous class which had been extremely successful - and, in terms of today’s primary system, quite radical: firstly, she’d gone off-timetable for the week; secondly, believe it or not, she’d used a book (yes, an entire book, not just snippets!); and, thirdly, and most daring of all, she hadn’t used any learning objectives.
For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of learning objectives: the prevailing orthodoxy in what passes for education in UK plc is that, even for quite young children, the teacher should begin her planning for every lesson by deciding exactly what the children are going to learn, and then devise a lesson whose aim is to teach it; she should at the beginning of the lesson put the learning objective (or objectives) on the board so that the children know what they are supposed to learn from this lesson; and at the end of the lesson she should have a way of checking whether or not they’ve actually learned it. Job done, box ticked.
It’s a very mechanistic approach to learning, ignoring all kinds of teensy-weensy trivial little factors such as, well, what children are actually like, how they develop, how they learn, and the difference between appearing to understand something and actually understanding it. A lot of teachers are unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach, but as they’re equally unconvinced of the wisdom of giving OFSTED an excuse to put on the hobnailed boots of punishment and stamp on their heads, they mostly hold their noses and get on with it.
This brave teacher, though, decided - just for the week - to do it differently. So: the class read a chapter, they talked about it, the discussions drove the next bit of learning, and so on for the rest of the week. And, she told me, the writing the children did for her during that project far, far surpassed anything else they produced in that year.
But, she went on, she can’t do that often. Instead, she has to spend precious time telling her class the meaning of phrases such as ‘subordinate clause’ - not because she believes that at 10 they need to know what a subordinate clause is, but because their writing has to use subordinate clauses to be marked at Level 5 in their SATS, and the only way to ensure they do this is to tell them (a) what a subordinate clause is and (b) that if they don’t use them they won’t get a Level 5.
There are not words to describe how furious, how utterly, impotently enraged I am that good teachers are forced to reduce the beauteous thing that is language to a series of components that, if assembled according to the Official Plan, will tick the correct box on some faceless, brainless imbecile’s clipboard. This is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s the same thinking that is now leading culture-free, drivellingly anti-intellectual philistines to suggest that it’s possible and even desirable to programme a mindless, soulless, heartless, garbage-in-garbage-out computer to recognise and mark good writing.
But that’s not all. The same week, a librarian told me of how she had gone off to buy new stock for the children’s library and was, on her return, asked by her boss: “But did you get what the children want?” By which, apparently, was meant: shelffuls of pink sparkly fairy books and countless copies of Horrid Henry. Not that I’ve got anything against Horrid Henry or fairy books as part of a balanced reading diet; but if I want to see shelves full of nothing else I’ll go to Waterstones or WH Smiths. I don’t need my library to look exactly like a branch of a bookstore chain; in fact, I want it to look quite different. I want to find there the books that Waterstones won’t take a chance on, the books that may not make a fiscal profit but that it will profit me to read.
And when libraries are trying to compete with bookshops to get the latest will-be-bestsellers in, regardless of merit or quality or anything but marketing budget and celebrity name on the front, but can’t get me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses - and I don’t mean they don’t have it on the shelves, I mean my local library couldn’t find a copy anywhere in the library system - then something’s badly, dangerously, civilisation-threateningly wrong.
I suspect that it’s down to those by-our-lady tickboxes again. Libraries are measured not on the service they provide, but on how many people they provide it to. I’ve visited at least one library where they have a counter that notes how many times the automatic door opens in a day, divides it by two, and makes that the measure of success. What idiot, what absolute dummy-sucking moron thought that was a good way to measure our public library service?
Then there’s the publishing industry. It’s a business, and you can’t blame publishers for trying to make money - especially in these rather crunchy times - but it does sometimes seem that the sales and marketing people have more power than the editors to decide what to publish. As Philip Pullman once argued, though, books are not an ordinary commodity, and to treat them as such, putting all efforts into chasing the Next Big Thing (or, more often, the Same As The Last Big Thing) and the celebrity branding, will have a negative effect on the quality and range of what’s available for young readers.
All of these issues have been concerns of mine - and, probably, of yours - for quite some time; but it was only when I found myself having conversations about all of them within a short space of time that it really, forcibly struck me:
Reading is important. Books are important. Good books are important. They help to develop basic and advanced literacy skills, thinking skills, value systems, critical and logical faculties, imagination and creativity... The list is probably endless. If we want what’s best for our children, then we want them to learn to love reading. And so we need a culture which enables and encourages that love.
But if what we have is a school system which reduces reading to a set of mechanical decoding skills, then fewer of our children will learn to love reading. And if those children who somehow begin to learn that love of reading then find that both libraries and bookshops are filled with the same narrow range of books, which - if nothing is done - is more and more likely to be the literary equivalent of junk food, then how is that love of reading ever going to develop? And what will that mean for our society in forty years’ time? It doesn’t bear thinking about - but we have to think about it, and we have to do something.
So: what has all this to with electoral reform?
My argument is this: the prevailing political orthodoxy states that:
- teachers are not trustworthy, and therefore must be controlled and monitored centrally
- the prescriptive, targets-focused methodology which has stripped the creative heart out of our education system is necessary to provide accountability and Raise Standards
- libraries should be run according to the whims of the market without any particular thought for knowledge or literature
- the market is always right.
Under the current system, only two political parties have any chance of forming the next government, and both of these apparently hold unquestioningly to this orthodoxy. The barbarians are not only at the gates; they’re in the seats of power. And the only chance we have of unseating them is to reform our electoral system so that our votes actually make a difference even if we don’t live in a key marginal, renewing parliament so that it becomes once more a check on the executive rather than an expensive rubber stamp.
That’s why we need a referendum, and why we need it before the next election - so that we can reverse the decline in our culture before it’s too late. Have a look at the Vote For A Change campaign, badger your MP, do whatever you can to get us a system in which our votes have meaning; and then use that vote to fight against this untrusting market-driven philistinism, while we still have a culture worth saving.
John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com. His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.