Toby Young Toby Young

Status Anxiety | 11 February 2012

Daft times

As the co-founder of the West London Free School, I receive a lot of junk mail from ‘educationalists’ trying to sell me various bric-a-brac, most of it pretty harmless. Occasionally, though, I get something genuinely disturbing. For instance, this week a publisher tried to interest me in the novels of Charles Dickens ‘retold in a sophisticated graphic novel format’. ‘With atmospheric black and white illustrations and simple text this series is ideal for drawing in readers who struggle with the original version,’ he wrote.

It’s a truth generally acknowledged in the state education sector that children aged 16 and under cannot cope with the novels of Charles Dickens. His books are rarely included in the GCSE English syllabus and most school libraries, if they stock any Dickens at all, only carry grossly simplified versions, such as the ‘graphic novels’ above. Claire Tomalin, author of the latest Dickens biography, seems to share this pessimistic attitude. ‘Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel,’ she told the Press Association last week.

Is it true that children can’t cope with Dickens? Not in my experience. I’m reading my eight-year-old daughter the original, unexpurgated version of Oliver Twist and she loves it. Admittedly, she sometimes asks me what a particular word means — but that’s called ‘learning’, isn’t it? I don’t think she’s particularly exceptional, either. Last December, I arranged for all the pupils at my school to go to the Arts Theatre to see Simon Callow reciting A Christmas Carol and they sat there, absolutely spellbound, for the duration. Teachers were placed around the theatre ready to quash any outbreaks of bad behaviour, but not a single child needed to be told off.

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