Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Dear Mr Gove

I was the author who asked you a question at a meeting last week, about school libraries. Why is it, I asked, that an Education Secretary who cares about literacy, who has spoken just now about the power of literature, is allowing school libraries to replace books with computers, school librarians to be sacked or replaced by unqualified staff, and School Library Services to close down?
Your answer was interesting. Yes, you care about reading, you want to see children challenged to read 50 books every year, you want to establish reading cultures in schools. Yes, you are concerned about the closure of the School Library Services. But you reject the idea of making it a statutory duty for schools to have a library. In small primaries that would effectively mean a corner with a few shelves of books, you said. In your lengthy answer, you didn't mention the word 'librarian' once. Not once.
I didn't get a chance to answer you there and then. People were fighting for the microphone. But this is what I would have said.
 - Only very rarely do teachers take the lead in creating a reading culture in secondary schools.This is because the national curriculum has nothing much to say about reading widely or reading for pleasure. If you want teachers to become more involved in reading then you must require children to write book reviews. Take a look at the CSE curriculum from the 1970s which had a long reading list for candidates.
 - If children are to be challenged to read 50 books a year, where are they to get the books from if there is no library in their school and the public library has closed down.
 - a corner with some books on a shelf is better than nothing, particularly when the public library has closed down and so has the School Library Service.
  -  British librarians are doing a great deal already to create reading cultures, and their work needs to be celebrated, funded and supported, not ignored and attacked. You say you want to see more author visits to schools - how about a ring-fenced budget so that librarians can make that happen?

I would have been more impressed with you, Mr Gove, if you had seemed to understand the system that you rule over. Instead, throwaway references to Biology GCSE (nowadays kids in state schools do Double or Triple Science) and Technical Drawing (did you perhaps mean Design and Technology?) gave the impression that you were stuck in the past. Telling a student that you don't care about exam stress, when she's quoted figures proving that the current system is giving teenagers mental health problems, is not impressive. And suggesting that exams, which test mainly speed and memory, are the only way to filter candidates for jobs, is just ignorant.
 I am a journalist, Mr Gove, and so are you. I would love to edit your columns, you have a nice turn of phrase, you can argue well. I'd go as far as to say you'd make a great newspaper editor. But writing opinion columns is not a great qualification for power. I hope you move on very soon.

Keren David


Sue Bursztynski said...

Alas, Keren, it isn't only in the UK that this sort of thing is happening. It's happening here in Australia too, because there's always some politician who makes loud noises abut how dreadful teachers are and that proncipals should have more power. But when school principals are given the power to make decisions on how the school budget is spent, all they end up having the power to do is decide where to make cuts and the library is always first, because it's the easiest place to start. My own multi-campus school has a major literacy program going, a very good one, but the principal is getting rid of librarians and trying to scrap the libraries themselves because,"they get it all on the Internet, why do we need a library? Why do we need a teacher in the library?"
It's not that they don't know better, but that they don't WANT to know better. And my country is copying countries that have failed in education and having the nerve to call it a "reform".
I have been meeting challenges, one after another, thrown at me by our principal, but the time will come wen I have had enough and what apens to the kids then?

Mayb the pollies think they'll get more votes from an ignorant public who don't read.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sorry for the typos! :-) I can spell, really! PS Book reports? My kids do book trailers, author interviews, fan fiction, essays...

Richard said...

The only qualification necessary to becoming an MP is the ability to get people to vote for you. Nothing else is tested or necessary. You don't have to be competent, truthful or honest, just persuasive.

And as the Anarchy Soc notice board had it many years ago: no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.

Hayley N. Jones said...

This is what happens when schools are forced to value league tables over providing a wide, solid education which cultivates a love of learning. I'm lucky that I took to reading at a very early age and that my love of reading has remained throughout my life.

Reading has allowed me to pursue my own educational interests and rebuild my confidence, which was destroyed partly by a grammar school who cared about the grades I got, but didn't give a stuff about me otherwise (and in fact exacerbated the mental health problems I had as a teenager). I pity children who do not have even the advantage of a love of reading to buoy them up during the years of learning to pass exams.

Emma Barnes said...

I think the most astonishing bit of this is the comment that libraries in small primary schools would only be a couple of book shelves anyway. Too true. At the moment that's often exactly what they are. Which leaves the question of where exactly primary children are supposed to access books?

When I visit primary schools part of my job as "visiting author" is to talk to the children about books, and I often ask them what they are reading, and recommend a range of titles they might enjoy. But how do they follow that up? There are so few books in school, the public libraries have been cut, there often isn't a local bookshop. In more prosperous areas, the parents might buy books but that isn't an option in more deprived areas. There is so much evidence now of the wide benefits of reading for pleasure - HOW ARE CHILDREN TO READ WITHOUT ACCESS TO BOOKS?

I think the problem is particularly bad in primary schools - and this is the time when reading for pleasure really needs to be established. It's too late to wait until high school.

To say that primary school libraries are likely to be inadequate therefore there's no point in making schools have them - that's an incredibly bizarre response. If reading is important - it's vital! - then start making it a priority, start making libraries something OFSTED will assess when inspecting schools, start making school libraries and librarians compulsory and things must improve. Mr Gove can do this is anyone can! But just shrugging shoulders while more School Library Services close (the latest North Yorkshire) is shameful.

Mr Gove has spoken a lot recently about how he wants more social equality in the education system, so that even the poorest children can get access to an excellent education. Reading for pleasure has been shown to be a major factor in predicting educational success, independent of social background. Enabling all children access to a wide range of books, regardless of their backgrounds, is therefore an important part of Mr Gove's professed goal. School libraries are the obvious way to do this. It's really not rocket science.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hear absolutely hear, Emma! This sums it up - write to the papers! Write to Gove!

emmac said...

Such a great piece, Emma. There is no argument for closing libraries and that's what's so frustrating. Because reading for pleasure is a non-measurable, it has no value for politicians. They'll say what they like- they don't actually care if we're convinced!

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping to go into the profession in the next year or so. For the last few months I've been applying for trainee positions in various libraries. It's noticeable though that most of these trainee graduate positions are either in university libraries, law firms, or (very occasionally) private secondary schools. I want to be a primary state librarian - how on Earth am I going to do that?!

What was it Malorie Blackman said a while back? Something about how prisons are required to have a library, but not schools? If I've not remembered that wrong, that to me seems to sum up a pretty dire situation.

It's not as if schools are unaware of the importance of a library eiether, just ministers it seems. When I was training to be a teacher I let slip what it is I do for a living and that I know my way round your average kids' section of a library - I remember my tutor's eyes quite clearly lighting up and going slightly glazed as she tried to figure out exactly how she could use what I know. Now imagine if I had a real library education and a *gasp* modest budget behind me - I would LOVE to be let loose in a school library like that, buy in books, invest in author visits/partnerships, work out ways to make the library the heart of the school again! How on Earth did it get to the state where it isn't anyway?

Nick Green said...

All mimsy were the Borrower Goves
Till one said:
"We'll have no borrowing here!"
and closed the library.

Beware the Tory boys, my son...
The claws that snatch, and snatch, and snatch...

Anonymous said...

Gove ignoring the evidence? Now there's a surprise!

Keren David said...

All the more galling, Julia, because he told another questioner off for basing her question on anecdotal evidence (and 20 years as a teacher)

Julie Sykes said...

Well said, Keren. If you're sending the letter to Gove and want signatures then count me in!

David Thorpe said...

@Keren Brilliant and well-informed piece, I wish I had been there.
@Emma Your comment is spot on as well.

I despair about this government, particularly the Tories who make decisions based on ideology and rank populism instead of evidence. I think there is a role for parent-teacher associations to organise donations of books and making space for them within schools In this climate.

Paul Rees said...

I agree completely with the sentiment but be careful with inaccuracy. Many state school kids do take Double and Triple Award Science but many, many state schools, like mine, offer Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate GCSE options. My boy got A* in each of them last summer.