|Teaching Michael Gove about reading|
Unfortunately Mr Gove is part of a government which believes that huge spending cuts are the best way to assure this country's economic future. These cuts mean that local schools and councils are contemplating how to save millions from their budgets. Libraries are particularly vulnerable to these cuts, as they are seen as 'soft' targets. So libraries are closing, school and public librarians are sacked, and children lose a source of free books, the chance to spend time in a place dedicated to reading, the chance to meet and learn from people who know about books.
Michael Gove assures us that he does care about reading. He is spending our money to devise a new test for Y1 pupils, a phonics based test which will identify children who cannot 'decode' words at the level they are expected to. Mr Gove says: 'Parents want to know how their children are reading and this will tell them.'
No, Mr Gove, a phonics test will not tell parents very much. It will not tell them if their children understand the words they read. Still less will it tell them if they enjoy reading, if they pick up a book out of interest, if they care about stories. It may even be that being drilled in phonics might be stressful for some children, and it may put actually them off reading. One of the 12-year-old boys I help as a volunteer reading helper is great at sounding out difficult words - but he hasn't a clue what they mean, and the pronounciation isn't usually correct, despite his painstaking effort, because English doesn't work phonetically.
Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister says:'There is more to reading than phonics – but there is also a weight of evidence that systematic synthetic phonics, taught in the first years of a child’s education, gives children key building blocks they need to understand words, underpins children’s attainment of a good standard of reading and can inspire a lifetime love of reading.
'The Government is determined to raise the standard of reading in the first years of primary school so that children can master the basic decoding skills of reading early and then spend the rest of primary school reading to learn.
'The fact is that alternative methods have left too many young people with poor literacy levels, especially among children of more disadvantaged families, and we are determined that every child can read to their full potential.'
Well, leaving aside the question of how anyone can possibly say what a child's full reading potential is, one of the alternative methods the government seem to have decided is worthless, is the Booktrust's book giving scheme. Bookstart is a national programme that gives a free pack of books to babies, and guidance materials to parents and carers. Booktime promotes reading aloud with children, and Booked Up aims to give a free book to every child starting secondary school in England.£13million of government money is used to generate £56 million-worth of private sponsorship. Mr Gove didn't just decide to half the grant, or discuss the scheme's future with Booktrust. No, he informed Booktrust with no warning, just before Christmas, season of giving, that the government funding would entirely cease.
Ed Miliband.the new Labour leader, accused the Conservative government of 'knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.' I think the current government is truly only interested in things they can measure. In this they follow Labour's lead - but in a far more brutal and philistine fashion.
Discussing this on Facebook this week, the writer Ellen Renner said:'They all view teaching children as some sort of factory system; managerialism gone mad .' It's not just managerialism gone mad - it's bad managerialism gone mad. It takes joy and pleasure and creativity out of learning and replaces it with decoding. It's a mindset which says that the humanities are useless and unworthy of funding. It makes 'culture' into something for a rich elite. It's profoundly un-British, I believe, and I don't think the government has a mandate to change our society like this.
Mr Gove might argue that the universality of the bookgiving scheme was wasteful - that children whose families could afford to buy them books end up with free ones. But he should listen to author MG Harris, whose book Invisible City was part of the Booked Up scheme this year. She met children in Derry and said :
'The universality was the appeal to many, who don't want to feel they are being singled out for being 'poor' or 'low achieving'. When I did the Booked Up launch event in Derry I had kids from posh grammars and from comprehensives in poor estates in the audience.But they all got excited about the free books.'
And he should listen to this little girl, reading her Bookstart book. The excitement in her voice isn't something that can be measured in a phonics test. But if I were her parent it would tell me what I needed to know.
What can we do about this decision? Get those squillionaire novelists to bridge the gap, is one suggestion I've seen, although I'd suggest that they do that by paying their taxes. It maybe that the enterprising people at Booktrust can find alternative funding. But why shouldn't taxes support a scheme like this? You can blog and tweet about the decision, using #bookgifting and @booktrust and @savebookstart. You can email Booktrust on You can write to Mr Gove and to your local MP.
Michael Gove has already had to make a significant U-turn when he threatened school sport funding. Perhaps he can be persuaded to think a little more about books.