Friday, 28 September 2012

Putting on My Hard Hat - by Emma Barnes

I have no teaching qualifications. I'm not an educational expert. But simply through being a children’s writer (and in addition, a parent) I’ve been drawn into taking an interest in the latest raft of proposals about our children’s education.

It started with a phone call from my local radio station, BBC Radio Leeds. What did I think about children learning poetry by heart, they asked. Huh? Was my highly articulate reply. The truth was I didn’t have a worked out opinion, but learning poetry by heart is one of the proposals in the new Gove paper on primary education, and so (the radio station reckoned, not unreasonably) as a children’s writer, and one who regularly goes into schools, I really ought to have a view.

So, I read the proposals. I went on air. And I’ve been stunned by the conviction – almost vitriol – that seems to characterise the debate. Learning poetry was an essential art, inducting children into the rhythm of the language, giving them discipline and the lasting gift of verse that their grandparents enjoyed, one side thundered. Drilling kids in poetry was a regressive step, designed to humiliate them, and destroy their love of learning, thundered the other. The trouble is, as with most educational debates, it never seems to me as cut and dried as the opposing camps suggest. It could be a good idea. But a lot depends on the way it’s done.

Around the same time, the Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, was circulating a petition for children’s writers to sign, condemning the provisions on phonics in the same government document. (Read the petition here.) Once more, I felt uncomfortable. Rosen is one of the most articulate critics of Gove’s approach to education in general. own impression is that phonics can be helpful. I doubt that - as Rosen sometimes seems to imply – exposure to storytelling and being surrounded by books is enough to get kids reading. Not at first. I’ve watched my own child learn to read. I’ve talked to other parents. And I’ve talked to dyslexia tutors, who often advocate a structured approach.

Above all, as a writer, I’ve visited plenty of primary schools, and met the children who are struggling to read at a level appropriate to their age. That’s desperately sad.

It’s left me feeling that, as a children’s writer, I’m not confident to weigh in on reading methodologies. The important thing is not ideology, but what works. I’d like others to make that decision, based on the very best evidence out there. (Not an easy task I know.)

Where I DO have a strong conviction, and where I strongly agree with Michael Rosen’s petition, is on the importance of reading for pleasure. Once children have mastered the basics of reading – by whatever methodology – they need to enjoy it. Otherwise they won’t read. And they must, if they are to become truly literate, educated people, capable of understanding the world around them – the world that lies beyond their own narrow experience.

As many people, including Michael Rosen and the Society of Authors, have pointed out, it is scandalous that the government, which is so ready to impose targets and objectives generally, is prepared to give no more than lip-service to the idea of “reading for pleasure”. The government acknowledges the vast body of research supporting its importance. Every school should be encouraging it, they say. Yet none of the concrete measures needed to encourage it are in place.

What is needed? It’s simple really.
  1. Every school should have a library. Schools make space for computers – but books are far cheaper, and what children need if they are going to read is books.
  2. Every school should have a librarian. Somebody on the staff of every school should have the job of understanding which children’s books are out there, choosing the stock, and guiding the children to the books that might interest them. That also means they need the budget and the training. It shouldn’t depend on luck – that there is somebody on the teaching team that has that special interest – as it does at the moment. 
It would make such a huge difference. It really would. So, I say forget about the ideology. The arguments about whether six year olds should be reciting Longfellow, or following whichever brand of phonics.


It’s not rocket science. It’s something surely on which we can all agree.

Emma's web-site
Emma's latest book is Wolfie.


Sue Purkiss said...

You put it all very clearly, Emma. I can never see why they don't make these decisions based on evidence, rather than conviction - and I'd prefer the evidence to be presented by educational psychologists who are skilled in interpreting it, rather than by politicians who are very good at being impassioned and rousing emotion.

John Dougherty said...

Great post, Emma; and I think your 3rd paragraph cuts to the heart of the matter. Learning poetry is a terrific thing to do. Forcing teachers to drill children in poetry is a terrible and destructive idea.

It all depends on the way it's done.

Likewise with phonics, a hugely important tool in the primary teacher's toolbox. But then there's this.

And as you and Sue both point out - there's strong evidence out there about what works, which gets ignored in favour of ideology. It makes me so cross!!!

(And not only do children need school libraries - they need local libraries, which Mr Gove's colleague Ed Vaizey is doing such a fine job of neglecting)

JO said...

Great post - and how can anyone possibly quibble with the need for every school to have a library?

As opposed to reading schemes, and learning poetry - what i question is the 'one size fits all' approach. Some children respond to phonics, others need a different approach. For some learning poetry will open magical doors while others will squirm week after week when they simply can't remember them.

We understand the complexity of adults - we are all different, with different needs and learning styles, yet somehow insist that children fit into the one learning box - how does that make sense?

frances thomas said...

Really good post, Emma. Trouble comes when politicians who don't really know what they're talking about try to impose all-or-nothing structures on education. I believe that children do need a structure to start off with - then reading for pleasure will come. I remember the bad old days in the eighties of 'real books' and the hordes of children who failed to pick up reading skills by osmosis.

Joan Lennon said...

Libraries/Librarians - good. No Libraries/Librarians - bad.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for your interesting comments, everyone.

John and Sue - I suppose one of the problems is that the evidence is always subject to different interpretations. What is depressing, is that interpretation seems often to be part of some larger ideological/political battle.

And as John points out, the decline in public libraries makes the school libraries even more vital for children to get hold of books.

And the thing is, getting books to children seems to me actually quite cheap, as well plainly A GOOD THING - books are so much cheaper than many of the other things that schools have to spend their money on.

John Dougherty said...

Emma: "I suppose one of the problems is that the evidence is always subject to different interpretations. What is depressing, is that interpretation seems often to be part of some larger ideological/political battle."

Couldn't agree more! And misinterpretation of the evidence for ideological reasons is a huge problem.

Emma Barnes said...

I should also point out there is mass lobby for school librarians: There will be a Mass Lobby for School libraries in London and in Edinburgh:
On Monday 29 October- Houses of Parliament, in London
On Saturday 27th October at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh

Have a look at Linda Strachan's post a few days ago for more on the vital role of school libraries/librarians

Anonymous said...

Great post! Spot on.

Linda Strachan said...

I feel sorry for the children who are experimented on every few years, when politicians decide to push out yet another different way of teaching kids to read.
If they change it, does that mean the last way they instructed teachers to teach reading was not working? if so why revert back to something that was taught before that, because if it worked so well, why did they stop using it?

It seems an endless cycle and the only people at risk are the children.

But there is one thing that is indisputable - children need books, lots of different kinds of books. They need interesting and stimulating books that develop a love of reading and stories.
They need libraries with librarians, people with the enthusiasm and skill to help find the right book for each child.

Often a child who has some level of reading skill but does not read much, has just not found the book that has something to say to them, and when they do it can change their life.

BooKa Uhu said...

I did teacher training a few years ago and you're absolutely right - reading for pleasure has been put on the backburner. Storytime often had to be planned into the day - no spontaneous stories there - and the worst incident was when I overheard my Year 1's comparing Oxford Reading Tree levels with one another. Surely they shouldn't be thinking about that at all, much less proudly stating to their friend 'I'm a level 5 now, which level are you on?'

Watching the education debate for the last few years, I've come to the conclusion that there's no sure-fire, guaranteed to work, one size fits all way to teach children to read. Some swear by phonics, while others swear by word recognition, while others swear by spelling it all out. Why stick to just one method, when you could combine multiple ones together and each child could find a way to read that suited them?

adele said...

Good on you, Emma. The death of the school library would be a dreadful, dreadful thing. As for phonics, I'm not qualified either but I do see some value in them, too. When used in combo with lots of other methods, etc. And reading for pleasure is THE THING WE MUSTN'T FORGET!!

Emma Barnes said...

Well folks, next week is Children's Book Week. No better time for children (and their respective grown-ups) to pick up a book for no reason other than sheer joy of reading!

Michele Helene said...

Hi Emma, this is a really enjoyable post to read. I am a primary teacher and I like to think that I do have a good understanding of how children learn to read and like Michael Rosen says FOREMOST you have to get children to love reading and you do that by reading. Once they love reading, then they want to learn and then you can do all the phonics and sight words and what not to give them the skill.

I no longer live in the UK and thankfully no longer teach the national curriculum (which was one of the factors that led me to bugger off in the first place). Personally I think that the day that the UK stops having Government think tanks dictating education and hand it back to the experts will be the day that the British education system will start improving. For now please keep writing great books so that us 'parents' have some good stuff to share with our kids.

Emma Barnes said...

Michele - thanks for your comment. Like I say, I don't feel qualified to comment on many educational debates, but the evidence that "reading for pleasure" is beneficial is so strong, that surely more should be done.

I had a wonderful visit to a school yesterday where the children were so welcoming and so enthusiastic about my books. Despite all the modern distractions, children do love books - they need the time to read and the opportunity to find the books that appeal to them.