Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Open Letter to Tristram Hunt on Reading. Do it!

Dear Tristram Hunt

You may or may not be aware but your predecessors in your position on the Labour Front Bench have considered and rejected submissions from various people concerning the idea of 'reading for pleasure'.

I suspect that you may not read any further because the phrase 'pleasure' can surely have very little to do with education - or if it does - it surely can not help the Labour Party win more votes. I have already picked up the vibe from your Front Bench of people trying to outdo the Tories on benefits and immigration and you too have already given signs of agreeing with flagship Tory ideas even as it becomes apparent that these are unravelling.

But I'll get back to Reading for Pleasure. An assumption grew up over the last twenty years or so that a) education was failing most - or at least far too many - children b) the best way to remedy this was by imposing more testing, more education reduced to heavily directed small tasks and some kind of 'return' (real or imagined) to the good old days. Labour bought into this bigtime with such crazy adventures as the National Literacy Strategy, a micro-managed journey to boredom and diminishing returns which was abandoned without any kind of intellectual analysis about why it was misconceived and had wasted many millions.

The Tories cynically used the resistance to this misconceived policy by coming into power talking of 'freeing' up schools and teachers to do what they do best which is teach, and you guys looked foolish and wrong-footed. Suddenly the Tories looked (for half a moment) as if they were going to release the talents and professionalism of teachers to play a major part in devising curricula, assessment and teaching methods.

Not so. It was just a hoax. Instead they have marketised education, setting schools against schools, teachers against teachers, pupils against pupils in a race to find customers, positions on leagues tables, and the best places on pre-determined exam curves. This has been policed (as if this wasn't policing enough) with new and toughened up high stakes, government testing from 6 to 16, embedding failure, failure, failure into the system - thereby obliging the employers by providing low wage fodder for the low wage economy that this austerity regime has accelerated.

Within this, education in relation to that highly reductive concept 'literacy' has been modelled by Michael Gove in two ways: in his public statements he produces watery eyed grandeur with references to Shakespeare and Dryden and on the other imposes dull, trivial testing which demands rote learning, meaningless lists of words, exercises in 'retrieval and inference' thereby leaving outside the classroom door the powers of interpretation, reflection and invention expressed by every child and student from  pre-school through to university. In fact, it is through pupils' powers of reflection, interpretation and invention that 'literacy' has meaning. What's more there is plenty of evidence to suggest that when pupils have the opportunity to read in depth, read widely and talk about what they're reading, most of the so-called 'skills' of literacy embed themselves in pupils' minds and consciousness. Conversely, there is no evidence to suggest that the apparatus of phonics, cloze procedures, retrieval exercises, spelling lists, grammar lessons prior to the age of 11, punctuation exercises help children understand language and literature nor enable them to produce coherent continuous prose, drama and poetry.

You will find plenty of research to show that the core activity that should take place within schools is 'reading for pleasure'. As one example I'll refer you to Mariah Evans et al and their research from the University of Nevada but this has been reproduced in different ways and reaffirmed by PIRLS, PISA and many others, It is clear that active readers, who read widely and often, self-select their reading are people who can access and benefit from education much more easily than those who don't.

It's not a mystery why this should be. Reading widely and often asks of young people to browse amongst differing kinds of written material. This involves scanning passages of writing, selecting what is important, processes which ask of young people to absorb the structure of language, the structures of continuous prose with its methods of subordinating, listing, logical argument, metaphor, illusion, illustration and so on. It connects meaning with purpose, meaning with pleasure, meaning with choice, meaning with existential need. The alternatives trumpeted by the Literacy Strategy and Michael Gove involve hours of tedium, dictated work programmes and small meaningless tasks.

When I was Children's Laureate I was asked to come and see Ed Balls (Sec of State for Education) and the Schools Minister, Jim Knight along with Jim Rose who had been hailed as the literacy guru until - as is constantly the case in your line of work - he was junked because he didn't quite fit the political bill for that particular moment. I showed Ed and Jim the research. I put them in touch with the Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency, and Booktrust. I met with the literature officers of Ofsted and then when the Tories came in I went in to see Nick Gibb to talk about 'reading for pleasure' .

For half a second, I was lulled into thinking that when Ofsted produced their 'Moving Forward' document in 2011 and saw that it included a 'recommendation' that 'reading for enjoyment' should in effect be on the curriculum or, as they put it, be school policy for every school, I detected movement.

Needless to say, the Tories did nothing more than wave in that direction, start some kind of  reading competition and instead put into place a piece of policy that has no evidence to support it, the 'SPaG test' which occupies even more time on the curriculum on tasks that won't produce what it claims to do namely produce better writing. That too was only a recommendation on the Bew Report, nailed on to the end of a Report that was supposed to be about Assessment and Accountability - not a report that looked systematically at what works in literacy and language teaching. So much for rigour.

So, Tristram, you have a great opportunity to show and expose all this. You can show the bookloads of research which show the efficacy of encouraging school-led policies on creating 'reading for pleasure' schools - not as a bolt-on to curricula that are killing interpretation, reflection and invention - but as a core curriculum,  You have an Ofsted document to back you up. You have research from Mariah Evans et al, along with the work of such people as Professor Stephen Krashen, and many documents from UKLA as evidence. You even have somewhere in the archives the documents from the late lamented 'Language in the National Curriculum Project' to guide you. In many university departments from Exeter, Canterbury, the London Institute of Education, King's College, Goldsmiths and many others you have academics who have worked with children and teachers looking at what really works in literacy education. You have the work of projects initiated by the Reading Agency, the Literacy Trust and Booktrust and Rotherham's Inspire project - which can show you what daily, reading for pleasure does for children, education and the wider communities.

You would have many allies from these places who can help you handle with those from the opposite side who might squeal about something or other but they don't have reason or right on their side on this matter. We have thousands of hours of research and analysis. All they have are memories of prep school and homilies based on Puritan ideas of spare the rod, spoil the child - or Gradgrind equivalents.

Reading for pleasure, reading for enjoyment - take your pick. I put up some suggestions on this blog but also at as to how this can take place. The NUT produced a splendid booklet in collaboration with great reading champion and author, Alan Gibbons. There are documents galore for the Reading Agency and the Literacy Trust, UKLA and others. You could at a stroke, create a new generation of readers and interpreters for whom education really was a door to a new world. You could revitalise the library service by wedding schools to libraries and vice versa - Nick Gibb and Ed Vaizey said they would look into that. Maybe they got tired looking. You could seize the time, Tristram. Do it.

All you have to do is announce that you will take up Ofsted's recommendation: every school should develop a policy on reading for enjoyment. And let's begin a national conversation on how best to implement that everywhere. All the time.