‘How do we get children reading?’ the minister asked me, just a week after Michael Gove had got them reciting poetry, more or less by making it illegal for them not to. This was his number two, Nick Gibb, who had invited me to the Ministry of Education for a 40-minute chat. I’m not sure how impressed he was with my thoughts as I’ve heard nothing since, so it seems fair enough to share them with Spectator readers. Who knows? Maybe Mr Gibb is one of them.
Politicians have a way of paying lip service to the subject of illiteracy because it is one of those issues that couldn’t be simpler. We want children to read because it’s good for them… right? Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown presided over something called ‘The National Year of Reading’ and I dutifully turned up at Downing Street to be photographed with a smiling (or grimacing) PM and a crowd of kids. It did seem odd that, at the same time, one in three secondary schools were having their library budgets cut and only one in three schools had a full-time librarian, but we were all too polite to mention it. Only this week the Local Government Association predicted that, with all the cuts, public libraries could disappear completely by the end of the decade. According to the Public Libraries News website, 121 libraries were closed last year and 275 are under threat. Not a particularly healthy background for a discussion about literacy either.
My own experience has taught me that, for all the talk and occasional headlines, we still undervalue reading. I wasn’t even slightly surprised when, in March, the Riots Communities and Victims Panel suggested that illiteracy might have played a part in last year’s London riots. The simple truth is that children who don’t read are tangibly different from those that do. I have visited hundreds of schools and believe I can describe the library before I’ve taken five steps into the building. As Professor Stephen Krashen put it in The Power of Reading: ‘When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about.’ And of course they get much more. Fiction teaches how to empathise, how to understand the way other human beings feel and think. It forces us to question and to enquire. It takes us on journeys across the world and back in time. Reading is, in itself, as creative as writing. Why are so few children’s films any good? Because no matter how many millions of dollars Hollywood throws at the screen, nothing can quite live up to the power and the infinitude of a young person’s imagination.
Reading cannot be the ornamental table in the corner. It is the carpet, the floor and the foundations on which all education stands and somehow more time has to be found for it in the already over-crowded national curriculum. These, in brief, are the ideas that I shared with Mr Gibb. Shared texts that every child in every school must at some time read. Silent reading periods. Compulsory reading during the holidays. Teachers in every department being made aware of what books the library has to offer. You like science? Try Simon Mayo’s Itch, the story of a boy who collects elements. Sport? Try Keeper or The Penalty by Mal Peet. Reading homework and reading tests — there are excellent software programmes such as Accelerated Reader which replace the ten questions and threat of death that accompanied my own school-time reading. Voluntary reading prizes. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley was the first ‘serious’ book I ever read and I was enticed to do so by a £20 prize. It was my first step into more challenging literature and the start of a life journey. And I won!
But really what is needed is a bold statement, an initiative that puts reading centre stage. And as I prepared for my meeting with the minister, I had one of those light-bulb moments. Why not a Kindle for every kid in the country? It’s more than an alliteration. Just think what sort of signal it would send out. Everyone knows that ebooks are the future. Last year Amazon sold more ebooks than traditional ones for the first time. In the past year there has been a threefold increase in adults buying ebooks. With their computer screens and mobile phones, young people feel far more comfortable with digital information and wouldn’t it be wonderful for teachers, at the touch of a button, to be able to send great literature into the homes of all their students?
It wouldn’t even be that expensive, would it? According to official estimates, there will be about 7.3 million children in British state schools four years from now. You can already buy an e-reader for £50 and that price would come down with bulk buying. Anyway, if literacy is so important, is £50 really so much to spend? But here’s an even better thought. What is going to happen to the £290 million that Barclays Bank has just been fined for manipulating the market? As I understand it, much of the money will simply trickle back into the banks in the form of lower regulatory fees. Why not grab it for our children and lash out on the first five million e-readers, already uploaded with the ten books that every child in the country should read? I’m voting for Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, David Almond’s Skellig and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. We can have a debate about the other five.
This is the big idea I pitched to Nick Gibb and apart from the likelihood that many e-readers will get lost, vandalised or thrown away (but that’s also true of books) I can’t see the flaw in it. When I mentioned it to Jonathan Douglas, the director of the National Literacy Trust, he got straight back to me. ‘I love the idea of Kindle Start. It’s got great potential and could change the world.’ But as I say, I still haven’t heard from the minister. Let’s hope he reads it here.