Saturday, 2 April 2011

Here he Goves again..

What is it about Michael Gove, our blundering Education Secretary? His intentions are good, he wants the right things. It's just the way he acts...and the way he talks.When he tries to change things he generally gets it wrong. His frequent  U turns and occasional apologies are almost funny - but education is too important to mess around with. There's a verb in the making -  to Gove, meaning to  screw up reasonable ideas. And now he's at it again.
Mr Gove has been to America. He's visited a charter school and been blown away by its policy on reading. Now he's back in the UK, enthusiastically damning the British education system for its low expectations and calling for a 50-book challenge to be introduced in British schools (as with many of Mr Gove's bright ideas the details are worryingly vague, leaving it unclear who will choose these books and how children are meant to obtain them). 
I would completely agree with him that there should be more time for reading whole books in schools, more access to books, more expectation that children will read a wide range of books including the classics. A 50 book challenge will work well for many children (although it may also cause others so much stress and depression that they could be put off reading for life). My son (11) responded enthusiastically to the idea ('Will there be a prize?') but he probably reads 50 books a year anyway. My daughter, in the first year of her GCSEs asked how she was meant to read 50 books alongside her copious amounts of homework. I suspect that such a scheme would get both of them reading more, less television watched and a broader selection of books read. So far so good.
But Mr Gove had to spoil it. I would have expected him to start talking to, say, the School Libraries Association about how to implement such a scheme. Instead he rushed into print in the Daily Telegraph. You can read his article here. I have copied a few extracts (in italics) below and added my response.

In one school run by the charter chain KIPP, every child was expected to carry a book at all times, so they could fill every vacant minute. In another KIPP school, children were challenged to read 50 books a year. This played to both their competitive instincts and their restless curiosity. A love of reading was seen as a winner’s trait.

Funnily enough, when I googled KIPP and reading, I found a news report which read : 'Reading and math scores fall sharply at two KIPP Schools'  Whether KiPP's scheme is a success or a failure, it runs its schools free of government interference, which Mr Gove will not allow even for the 'free' schools which he is setting up.
Were the 50 books read by KIPP's children their own choice, or a list provided for them? If the latter, it will have dampened their ‘restless curiosity’ which would be better served by allowing them to pick their own books. What about the kids who didn’t manage the challenge, who found it painfully impossible? Did they begin to associate reading with being losers?
Some big differences, by the way, between American schools and British ones -  American schools do not require children to start to specialise at the age of 13, making life-changing choices about which subjects to take and which to drop. Nor do they expect children to take important external exams for three years running between the ages of 16 and 18. Nor (I expect) do they have completely daft ways of testing children such as expecting them to prepare extended essays, memorise them and then regurgitate them in exam conditions. I imagine there is more room in the American system for reading.

Across America, childhood reading has been encouraged in recent years by Drop Everything And Read Day on April 12, which asks children to stop whatever else they’re doing and get lost in a book. In many charter schools, every day is a DEAR day: reading for pleasure becomes as natural as breaking for lunch.

In the UK we have World Book Day, and many schools have book weeks.   Reading for pleasure (which is not at all the same as reading for ‘winning’) is encouraged by regional and national book awards, reading groups, author visits and Carnegie shadowing groups.  All of this and much more is done by knowledgeable and enthusiastic school librarians. Sadly the government’s cuts mean that many librarians are losing their budgets or their jobs. The government could make it a statutory duty that schools have a well-stocked library (as in prisons) but they haven't. Author visits and book-buying are all threatened by budget cuts.

The children I met were smart and lively. But they were also, overwhelmingly, from the most disadvantaged homes. That didn’t mean their teachers lowered the bar. Quite the opposite. They wanted to give those children a chance to enjoy the glittering prizes – so they set expectations high, fostering a culture of excellence and making clear that nothing is as enjoyable as getting to know what the finest minds of all time have thought and written.

If Michael Gove honestly believes that children’s authors are ‘the finest minds of all time’ (I doubt it) then he could start by looking at a campaign set up by some of the best British authors -  the Campaign for the Book, which points out some areas he might tackle, to help disadvantaged British children enjoy the ‘glittering prizes’ that reading can bring. They are:
 - public library closures - 60 last year and more planned
 - a loss of professional library staff, down 13 per cent between 1995 and 2005
 - more untrained volunteers instead of qualified library staff
 - fewer books in schools, a 15 per cent reduction, while there has been a 28 per cent rise in education spending
- a shift from books to computer services
 -  the closure of school libraries to make way for IT suites
 - the sacking or down-grading of public and school librarians
- the closure of school libraries
 -  the marginalisation of reading for pleasure and the reading of whole books in many schools as teaching to the test replaces the pleasure of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.

I want the same culture here. I want to take on the lowest-common-denominator ethos, the “let’s not be too demanding”, “all this smacks of targets”, “the poor dears can’t manage it”, “the idea of a canon is outmoded”, “it’s all on the internet anyway” culture which is anti-knowledge, anti-aspiration and antithetical to human flourishing.

Oh Mr Gove! Where to start?' Let’s not be too demanding' - then please,  have a look at the SATs culture in schools and how they limit achievement. ‘All this smacks of targets’ – abolish league tables then.  ‘The poor dears can’t manage it’ -  agreed, don't patronise children, give them books to read in the National Curriculum, not extracts.  And as for ‘it’s all on the internet anyway’..well, that’s the argument used by people who want to close libraries. You don't agree with them-  so do something to save libraries.

This is why the Government is taking action to encourage wide reading, for pleasure, again. We’ve already extended the Booktrust programme to help disadvantaged children develop their love of reading. This week, a new report has set out plans to put a new emphasis on literacy. Next year, we’re introducing a new check at age six to make sure children are on the right path. And shortly I’ll be announcing plans to ensure that our exams work to encourage broad reading.

Far from extending the Booktrust programme, Mr Gove, you announced that its entire government funding was being removed, with no notice, just before Christmas. After an entirely predictable outcry (at Christmas, you moron, when there is no news and  acres of white space in newspapers) you backed down, although you are still cutting the Booktrust grant.  Don't tell us you are expanding it. Do you think we are 'poor dears' who can't remember back a few months?
And as for your age six check, Mr Gove,  it focuses entirely on ‘decoding’ sounds phonetically, not on whether children understand anything that they are reading.  The UK Literacy Association has been campaigning against this new test, and its objections are summed up in an Early day Motion put down by MP Annette Brooke  
The motion  reads: That this House endorses the views of many early years experts in calling for a rethink on the introduction of a phonics-based reading test for all 6 year olds; believes that phonics can play a crucial part in reading but that a simplistic exclusive focus on phonics can distort children's learning and limit the breadth of their experience; believes that reading should be enjoyable and that children need to look for meaning as they read in order to develop fluency and understanding; and further believes that young children need to have highly trained teachers with an understanding of child development and that such teachers are best placed to identify children who are not reading at an appropriate level for their age and level of development through appropriate monitoring and observation.

But we can’t just leave it to our teachers: we need to develop our own Drop Everything and Read initiative, and support competitions like the Fifty Book Challenge. This country has the best children’s writers in the world. But while we celebrate Pullman and Rowling, Morpurgo and Rosen, Horowitz and Higson, many of our young people are growing up in ignorance of their work. That’s unacceptable. It’s my mission to change what we expect of young people, and reverse the fashionable assumption of far too many in education that children shouldn’t be challenged to achieve far more. In particular, I want the next generation to grow up with a real sense of style – the elegant prose style of those who have made the English language the greatest source of beauty in our world.

No, we can’t just leave everything to our teachers - that’s why we need librarians as well. Talk to them, Mr Gove, ask their advice. Celebrate their expertise, learn from them. Find out what they are doing, what works well and give them funding to do more of it.
You may admire the ‘elegant prose style’ of  JK Rowling, Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz, others may choose different writers to fete. But listen to what writers have to say as well. Anthony Horowitz, for example, here, calling for children to be given the resources and the time to read in a relaxed way. Not to be ‘winners’ necessarily. Not so they can win ‘glittering prizes’.(A bit of a cliche there, by the way, Mr Gove, you might want to read a bit more to improve the elegance of your prose)
You’re on the right track, Mr Gove, in seeing that too little is done in the UK education system to encourage reading. You’re all excited by your jaunt to America and you think you’ve found out all the answers there. 
You're actually missing a big chance politically, by swiping at teachers.  You could legitimately attack the former Labour government for failing to create a reading culture in schools. Just find out the facts first, listen to the experts and stop rushing into print and making a fool of yourself. 
Yesterday Patrick Ness (heard of him, Mr Gove? Just as good as JK Rowling, I promise you) challenged you to be a champion of the libraries. There's still time  to avoid Goveing it up.Not much time, but you're the man for the job. At the moment.


  1. What a fantastic post Keren! I will be sharing it far and wide. The continuing lack of 'joined-up thinking' by this government is breathtaking. School librarians are being made redundant every week up and down the country and then we get diatribes like this: from Toby Young to ruin our Saturday mornings!

  2. Such an eloquent post!
    It sums up my feelings exactly and as one of those librarians whose school libraries was replaced by an IT suite, I thank you for this fantastic post and your support to our profession!

  3. Oh - are you sure you are talking about the UK here? It sounds more like Australia!

  4. Well said Keren! As a school librarian in a comprehensive, who has had a meagre budget in the past, this year my budget is being reduced by 20%. Once I have paid for our subscription to the county school library service and paid for our Library management system, I will have less than £1 per pupil for the year! Reading and libraries are not valued in the UK.

  5. Great post, Keren! May I contact you directly via email about an idea for collaboration?

    I must admit that I am perhaps less inclined to be generous to Mr Gove: you say that "His intentions are good, he wants the right things. It's just the way he acts...and the way he talks", whereas I feel that he has demonstrated in his work so far that he has very damaging intentions, in many areas.

    I would also love you to point me in the direction of a Gove apology, as up to now, whenever he has been forced into a u-turn, it has been couched in revoltingly self-justificatory terms!

    One point in which we are in accord is where you state that he is still "the man for the job... at the moment". I have heard rumblings for some time now that this time may soon be up. We shall see - but I fear that, while Education Secretaries come and go, some less damaging than others, ultimately education in this country will only really thrive when blended pedagogies and not narrow-focus ideologies form the foundations for what we are trying to achieve for our young people...

  6. @Alex Yes, do email:

    Gove did make an apology in parliament over the school building Gove-up; although later he Goved-up his apology visit to Sandwell

    I do think that his intentions are good, in that he wants children to read more and for there to be more choice and higher expectations in the state sector, all of which I agree with. Unfortunately he is so inept and hasty when implementing anything that ideas which should be constructive end up doing more harm than good.
    I wouldn't be at all surprised if Cameron sacks him in the next reshuffle. He's an embarrassment.

  7. Just a brilliant post, Keren. Thank you.

  8. Really good, Keren - I hope you've composed this into a letter that's headed Gove's way?

  9. Great post. I always liked Gove - thought he came across as genuine and thoughtful. But lately he does seem to have a new brainchild every week depending on where he's visited.
    I personally don't think reading 50 books a year is too healthy - surely it'd stop you doing other things that make you a rounded human being? And skipping from one book to the next means you don't spend any time thinking about what you're reading. And ultimately that's what reading is about, no? Promoting thought. It's certainly not about winning and competition.
    Maybe a better idea would be a compulsory 12-book target per year, with vouchers so kids could get three or four of those books free or for £2 or cost price or something. And they'd be able to pick any books they like.
    Anyway, a very thought-provoking post.
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  10. @Zannah I like to think he's got a google alert, but I'm sure he's never even heard of google.

  11. Excellent arguments, Keren. I'm a teacher in a sixth form college and I despair of the way things are headed in education. I don't understand why someone with no expertise (or real understanding) for my profession is allowed to make such huge decisions about it. You're right, Gove is an embarrassment, and education is too important for this.

  12. Great post and made me really think...As an MFL teacher, our school library has some old dictionaries, an old copy of Camus 'La Peste' and not much else, when I asked if they could buy some little paperback stories in French...the words 'no budget' came back. Our school librarians are not valued either and I worry for the future of our school library..such a shame.