Our esteemed *cough* Minister of Education has recently weighed in with his views on children's reading. Young people, says Michael Gove, should not be addling their brains with popular nonsense like Twilight but should be reading Middlemarch instead. This gem in the same week, he attacked the use of Mister Men in teaching history and has decreed that already stressed 11 year olds must have an hour's grammar test included in their SATS, replacing a longer piece of writing.
Now. I too, think grammar is pretty important. I love Middlemarch (and have read all four Twilight books and seen all five films, see Michael? It's possible to do both!) and, although as a British Citizen I am constitutionally required to own a full set of the Mister Men, I do concede they may be a little young for GCSE students.
But it's not as simple as that. Unless you're the Minister of Education. For instance the Mister Man component is just a small part of the course, a way for GCSE students to look at how they would teach history to younger students. And yes, children do need to learn basic grammar, but to this extent and at this age? Surely teaching them to write, to get their thoughts on paper is the most important thing, not to constrain them by rules? There is plenty of time for them to learn what a preposition is, the whole of secondary school for instance.
I have a bright, curious, nine year old daughter. I am really lucky; at the moment she is motivated, enjoys school and works hard. Parent-teacher evenings are a pleasure to attend. But, until recently, she wasn't a reader. I tried really hard not to struggle with this, especially as she is both sociable and active, qualities her bookworm mother doesn't really possess. And as both her father and I read to her every night I made sure that she was versed in the entire works of Noel Streatfield..
So you can imagine my surprise when I turned up at a parent's meeting last year to find that she was way ahead in reading. How could a child who never read for fun be ahead? A child who got bored before the end of Chapter three? Her (lovely) teacher used phrases like 'reading deeply into the text' and 'insight' and showed me how far she was up what seems like a never-ending learning ladder. Which is great. But I would by far have preferred her to enjoy reading, not simply tick the right boxes.
It turned out she just needed the right trigger. A couple of months ago she picked up the first Harry Potter and that was it, hooked. She has just finished all 636 pages of Goblet of Fire in just over two weeks. I am DELIGHTED. Not for me a reprimand for reading at the table, ignoring me when I talk to her, warnings of car sickness. Watching her read fills me with utter happiness. And I don't care what she reads, as long as she is reading.
So no, not every student will leave school having read Middlemarch. So what? If they have been imbued with a love of books then they may in the many, many years of reading that lie ahead. I was in my thirties when I read it and don't feel that I was handicapped by this advanced age at all. I was, however, put off Iris Murdoch for life by trying to read my mother's copy of The Bell on holiday when I was ten (I read my first Mills and Boon that very same holiday). Snobbery about reading, snobbery about books, pushing books onto people who aren't ready or interested, this is what holds children back. Let them find their own way to books, give them choices and encouragement and cut down on the tick boxes. That's what may just create a nation of readers.