Nicky Morgan’s Panacea for Encouraging Reading in Schools

dickens[Above image of a young Charles Dickens used in today’s BBC News Education report]

Nicky Morgan’s urgings today that major publishers cut the price of ‘classic’ novels to encourage reading in schools and, presumably, at home is surely no more than a soundbite.

As Education Secretary, though bland and meaningless in terms of her impact and effectiveness since holding this office, one assumes there is some element of genuine truth in her wanting to improve reading among the country’s young, and beyond. But extolling the virtues of ‘classic’ novels as a catalyst for this is, well, dumb.

Does simplistic sound better for anyone balking at that previous adjective? Perhaps you’d be right, but I have little time for this kind of politicking.

I’ll keep this straightforward: for years Wordsworth Editions Classics series has been competitively priced on the open market – currently at £1.99 – but I remember when these were available not so long ago at £1, and I think it is easily possible to buy in bulk, as schools would, at a significant discount on that current price. The point is, compared with most other contemporary fictions, as well as ‘young person/teenage’ fiction out there, I don’t see much point in making a clarion call about this area of the literary market.

Unless you are after that soundbite. And if you can get a comedian, who has his own book to hawk, to provide a celebrity endorsement.

And the ‘classics’ as catalyst? This is a tricky one to start unpicking critically because in doing so it is easy for other dumb people to characterise any reservation as a ‘progressive’ distaste for heritage and culture and – you know what’s coming – demanding high standards. I see my reservations about the classics as obvious ones, especially in engaging and encouraging further reading primarily in the young: relevance, language, length.

I am not, let’s be clear, banning the ‘classic’ novel from its role in engendering a desire to read – that is something Morgan’s predecessor Gove did. But in deciding a national policy, politicians need to step considerably outside their own narrow experiences. For example, Morgan states ‘Our ambition is that every secondary school should have sets of a wide range of classics so that whole classes can enjoy them together – books I loved as a teenager by authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Emily Bronte’ – such a personal interest doesn’t equate to the realities of the classroom experience, nor more importantly, approaches to encouraging reading for all based on years of educational research, for example individualised programmes [though I have always been somewhat old-fashioned in enjoying reading the class novel].

This isn’t the place to unravel that debate. However, it is a key point because it continues to highlight Morgan’s soundbite approach to curriculum development – and funding – rather than a professional and informed one. Indeed, encouraging reading of a class novel, whether classic or contemporary, doesn’t fit into years of a target culture and preparing for its testing regime: not least KS2 and KS3 Reading tests which have little if anything to do with reading widely for pleasure [surely the fundamental urge behind Morgan’s idea?].

I could go on unpicking the problems with this, not least querying how an emphasis on reading classic novels can be fostered for reading at home. However, I will make clear here that I am a huge fan of classic novels [sounds daft expressed like this….] and sharing/teaching these in the classroom. But this isn’t the panacea Morgan soundbites.

Yes, I have created a new verb.

The other key point is, why isn’t Morgan urging publishers to make ALL fiction, especially contemporary ‘young person/teenage’ novels, more cheaply available to schools? Would that be interfering with the market economy too centrally? Well, even I would say yes to this!

The way to achieve this is for the government to heavily subsidise such published materials for schools. That’s an actual funding policy to underpin and support a genuine curriculum plan for encouraging reading. It does matter that ‘classic’ literature isn’t the impetus for engaging young readers: we need fiction that reflects the lives they live, in the language they speak, in accessible amounts [that doesn’t mean ‘short’]. Such fiction does also need to introduce the young to contemporary lives they do not live/know/understand so that they learn; to use a language that will challenge and inspire and elevate, and in any amount but in a curriculum that values and validates whatever time is needed to read for the sheer pleasure of it.

And this is only scratching the surface of the argument. We need to reopen all the public libraries that have been closed by this Government. Every state school needs a dedicated fulsome library and a dedicated professional librarian. Every state school needs to support reading lessons free from testing and measuring of any kind. Every state school needs to have visiting writers to introduce their writing and to read it and to develop workshops for students to write themselves.

Does this sound complex and demanding? I do concede it would be a lot easier to simply suggest we get publishers to drop the cost of no-copyright-fees-needed ‘classic’ literature for schools and a Bob’s-your-uncle soundbite policy to promote this.

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Curtain Pole

The curtain pole has been leaning downwards at the right hand
end for over a year, ready to fall, and there is a bend in the middle
where the two halves are joined. Tonight I have finally made the
repair and it is secured back and totally straight, as far as the eye can
tell. There are loads of things in this house that are broken or just
getting worse with the wear of time. I have been working at other
fixings or decorations for so many weeks but seem to be getting
nowhere, and I am worn out too with what fading skills I bring to
each chore and the increasing ache and pain of trying to match the
level of care from so many years ago. I seem to be losing all of my
patience and I have lost the certainty that I can make things better.
No doubt I will go back and admire the curtain pole as some kind
of hope, wish that its horizontal perfection can be a simple template
for more complex work, and resign myself to the bigger jobs to bear.

Writing Workshops – Author Profile

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Cambridge University Press has put author profiles on the educational site for its new English GCSE resources, including the Writing Workshops, and you can check it out here or, if interested, read below – I had forgotten information had been requested, and it is interesting to read what was said and judge if you still agree! Well, I do, and I am still very proud of the resource written with Martin Phillips:

Author Spotlight

Mike Ferguson – Writing Workshops

1. Could you tell us a little about your background?

I taught English for 30 years in an 11-18 comprehensive; 18 years as Head of Department. I write regularly: have had poetry published in a wide variety of journals [book and on-line] as well as anthologies and one collection; educational textbooks, especially focusing on poetry and creative writing, and blogging, both about music and English as a subject [though separately!]

2. What do you enjoy most about working in education?

I am retired from teaching, but always loved the engagement with students and colleagues. As an English teacher my greatest privilege was to work with students of all abilities and encourage them as writers, especially creatively, and to experience their joy in discovering a talent for being imaginative as well as expressive. Some of the best writing I have ever read – and I mean ever – has been that from my students over those 30 years.

My work now in education, whether writing about English for textbooks or blogging, reflects my continuing desire to share experience and support both teachers and students to engage fully in this subject, especially in developing an enthusiasm for and expertise in writing widely.

3. What inspired you most as a student?

The humanity, kindness and support from teachers at my secondary modern school in Ipswich: a Head teacher who encouraged my political and other radicalism, as naïve as it was at the time; an RE teacher who allowed me to explore issues and express opinions without ever correcting or belittling; a Physics teacher who always complimented my effort and illustrations in exercise books whilst I was clearly out of my depth with knowledge and understanding, and an English teacher who praised and encouraged my early poetry writing [a la Ginsberg] despite the fact it was naïve and pretentious. Their encouragement and care was forever a model to which I aspired as a teacher.

4. What advice would you give to teachers at this time of significant educational change?

English teachers need to be writers and readers themselves, especially the former.

If we are entering a period with less testing and targeting as the core culture in which we work – which seems possible – English teachers should, in my opinion, celebrate the creativity in our subject as much as possible. The whole school curriculum has over the years become increasingly literal and in English we need to celebrate metaphor and all that is slippery and elusive, especially when it comes to monitoring!

5. What’s your favourite book and why?

This is that question which cannot be answered finitely! However, I would single out Ray Carver and his short stories as a favourite in being so memorable to read, but also in guiding me as a writer: keeping it simple. I know I very often do the complete opposite, but what I hope my best writing achieves is to be honest and straightforward. Unless I need to be outrageous.

6. How do our new English GCSE for AQA resources support teachers and students?

With fellow author Martin Phillips, we wrote the ‘Writing Workshops’ to adhere passionately to an ethos where we treat students as writers to help them improve as writers. The new GCSE terminal exam for Writing is a reality that I would never characterise as ‘easy’ [especially its totality as an end-of-course exam] but it is straightforward and if we have encouraged students to write as writers – more meaningful than it sounds – over the two years of the GCSE study, and to engage with and respond to extended ‘real’ writing tasks rather than endless exercises, then they will be as prepared as possible for that exam. We also hope they will have enjoyed the writing process of getting there.

I think the digital resources that accompany our text and many others in this significant new collection of resources to teach English Language and Literature from 2015 is genuinely exciting in its breadth and focus. From a Writing perspective, well-known and full-time writers talking about their craft directly to students has to be a goldmine of engagement and illumination.

7. Cambridge University Press has set up a Brighter Thinking Forum to engage students and teachers in what we do and to give something back to them as well. It also represents a mission statement for our new publishing. What does ‘brighter thinking’ mean to you?

Keeping my focus on writing, ‘Brighter Thinking’ in this context is about exploring and engaging and being imaginative. It is also about being creative, and it is about being prepared to take risks. There are rules and conventions and one needs to know these as well as when and how to use them, especially where such a norm is the best method to apply. However, ‘Brighter Thinking’ should be about having had the practice to explore alternatives and the confidence to brightly step outside the box in using these to make a real impact.

The Skriker – Caryl Churchill, the Royal Exchange Manchester, July 2015

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Working in Manchester in July, I was fortunate enough to get tickets for and see Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker at the Royal Exchange Theatre with Maxine Peake in the starring role.

It is a linguistically virtuoso play and that was a key attraction for me, as well as the staging and naturally Peake’s performance which had received rave reviews. Having seen it for myself, these were abundantly deserved, not that they were ever in question.

The language bombardment is thrilling as well as beyond absorption. The Skriker’s opening soliloquy, for example, challenges Lucky’s famous speech in Waiting for Godot for its relentless pace and volume of words, but the playfulness is unique in my experience. And although one gets attuned to the punning and repetitions in the Skriker’s mesmerising dramatic idiolect, that doesn’t mean one is always following the meanings, though the idea of semantic sense as a given would be to miss the point of only picking up on sound and impression and suggestion and meaninglessness: how does one make sense of the world we live in?

I’ll highlight a few examples of the wordy playfulness to give an aural flavour:

scissors seizure seize your sizzle
snap crackle poppet
changeling changing chainsaw massacre massive
Dollop gollop fullup
ointment disappointment

and including the grammatically ramshackle yet working lines like

Roast cats alive alive oh dear what can the matterhorn piping down the valley wild horses wouldn’t drag me

and this is just the tip of a whole other world iceberg.

The most dramatic point in the play is about halfway through and it is the sheer imagination and presentation of the moment that matters. I have no idea how gloriously this has been done before and elsewhere, but at the Royal Exchange, it was truly stunning. Whilst there are notes from Churchill to set the scene, its realisation is completely open to interpretation. The action is a feast in the underworld populated by an array of ‘lavishly dressed people and creatures’ and the Skriker as a fairy queen.

In this production I was so privileged to see, the stage was transformed into the most colourful and loud and grotesque and noisy and busy episode. In addition to those ‘people and creatures’ the stage was also invaded/filled with a chorus of singers and the sound of the whole was breathtakingly beautiful in its orchestration and volume.

This scene was, as they say, worth the admission price alone. It and the whole play lickety split me in two with the stink bombastic of its linguistic and dramatic prowess.