9 May 2011

Eyeing the Literary Trap - Again

I am not a banner-waving politico, but what I read today chilled my blood.

A teaser in this morning’s Book Trade News Book2Book rang an alarm - “Government Considers Reading List For [UK] Primary Schools” - and I followed the link to an article on BBC Education  which starts “Primary schools could be asked to teach an approved list of books and authors, under new plans being looked at by the government's curriculum review.”

Ooooh, have I been here before…

Many years ago, like back in 1995, I answered the phone to find myself being solicited by a pressure group to endorse the principle “all children should learn by heart from a canon of great literature”. I didn’t even need to think about it; I refused point blank.

My early teenage reading had been turned from a journey of delight into a war of attrition by being forced to read and précis twelve set books a year, their titles staring down from the wall above my desk. I recall huge blocks of impenetrable dark print, convoluted sentence structures I could barely comprehend, words I could hardly pronounce. At the tender age of eleven I had been quietly immersed in The Great British Classics and left to drown.

I remember the pressure-group petitioner being appalled by my reaction. In return I demanded to know whose ‘canon of great literature’ would be used as set texts: those of the English, the British, the Indian sub-continent, the West Indies? All I received was an echoing silence.

I make the same point now as I tried then. Which approved list of books will primary children be made to read? Those suited to the preparatory schools of the Harrow and Eton look-alikes? Will the same list be shovelled down the throats of a 90% ethnic Pakistani class in the Midlands, or a 90% ethnic Eastern European class in Lincolnshire?

All under-elevens attending school should be introduced to the wonderland that waits beyond the portal of the written word, not indoctrinated in what is perceived to be good and what is perceived to be bad by a set of faceless bureaucrats referring to themselves as “experts”. Especially when friends of these “experts” are either closing libraries or replacing knowledgeable librarians with counter assistants taking home the minimum wage.


And if readers are wondering how my memory is so sharp that I can recall a single phone conversation from sixteen years ago, it is because I've just reread the stinging article on the exchange I wrote for my regional newspaper The Yorkshire Post. Now, there's an idea...


  1. Agreed, Linda. I remember being made to read 'The Trumpet Major' as a set book at the age of twelve - far too early. It took twenty years for me to pick up another Thomas Hardy, and then I read the lot. There is excellent writing about for all ages, and schools should be allowed to choose it themselves.


  2. Exactly. How to put a child off reading in one fell swoop.

    My first was "Tom Brown's Schooldays" - I can't tell you who wrote it but I can tell you what my teacher said... "It's about a boy at a new school, just like you." Yeah, right, like interstellar space flight is just like getting on a local bus. And it wasn't about "a boy" at all, it was an exploration of the iniquities of the system - just what an 11 year old in the early 60s could both understand and relish.

    I believe that's why children enter secondary school serious readers and before they're 14 hate everything about the printed word. It has nothing to do with the "Kevin" effect and everything to do with their schooling. And now the "experts" are wanting to start the process at kindergarten.

  3. It is a sad fact that many of us have been through the literary shredder in the name of education, only to have been put off great work because we were force fed it at too early an age. If educationalists, and those who consider themselves expert in teaching, could only remember that learning is as much about enthusiasm as anything else, we might actually achieve something positive.
    It would be wonderful if children, especially young children, could be encouraged to read what they enjoy, thereby learning to love literature and language. Instead, we have them crammed into pre-formed boxes of unsuitable composition and then wonder why they attempt to escape as soon as freedom becomes an option.

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Stuart. I totally agree. But it can so easily get worse.

    When Point Horror from Scholastic was all the rage I went into my local library to borrow a handful to see if I'd like to write for the line. Not one to be seen. Were they all out? I enquired at the counter. The librarian pinked about the cheeks. Evidently some "expert" at HQ had decided that "such books" were not...

    I was stunned to silence. All I could think of were the book burnings in Nazi Germany. Thankfully someone saw sense at HQ and the "expert" on suitable children's reading was silenced.