Tuesday, 22 March 2011

50 books a year challenge

Michael Gove MP, who as you might know looks after education for England and Wales, has caused a frisson in the literary community - children's writers in particular - over his comment that every eleven year old should be aiming at reading 50 books a year.

You'd think authors would be all for such a thing. More reading surely means more sales. But Gove has been subject to a volley of criticism.

No surprise really. The Coalition's budget cuts have led to swingeing library closures as councils have cut the one thing no one truly considers essential but which every one would like to see continue. Anthony Browne, the children's laureate, spoke about this on radio, pointing out that if the government hadn't been cutting libraries perhaps children would get the chance to read more.

Put the libraries debate to one side and strangely my sympathies this time are with Gove. His point is roughly this: kids in the UK aren't reading enough and we are setting the bar too low in education and not encouraging them to read more. More books under your belt means better spelling, grammar and what do you call it? Vocabulary. Reading is good.

As it is, GCSE candidates are getting by on a couple of novels a year (and one of them is Of Mice And Men, he complains). In America, in some well motivated schools, teachers daringly set challenges: who can read all the Harry Potters first? First to Fifty, etc. Why not do the same here?

The comments from several children's writers to the effect that it's the quality of the reading experience that counts, not the number, is hooey. Volume matters too - it's a way of keeping count. Plus information has a habit of, well, sort of piling up. It's useful, like having an iPhone inside your skull.

Yes folks, reading expands the brain and raises your aspirations. If a person reads just one book a year and gets plenty out of it great. But what good is it if he or she spends the rest of the year on Facebook or murdering zombies on Playstation? By the time he gets round to picking up another book his brain will be back to mush.

Gove made his comments as part of a campaign to get people onside for his plan of independently run state schools. Scotland is excluded from this, of course. We have The Finest Education System.... yada yada yada. But the truth is, Scotland's middle classes have long opted out of the state sector: nowhere has better value independent day schools than Glasgow and Edinburgh (half what you'd spend in London). Their stellar results and league tables speak for themselves. As to the others, I doubt if Scots kids are reading any more than their southern neighbours. And most of our libraries are staying open.


  1. Grim to agree with Gove, but I think he's right on this point. Enid Blyton (in my case) and JKR nowadays do at least get kids reading - becoming a discerning reader doesn't happen if you are not a reader of any kind in the first place.

  2. Hate to be picky but 'murdering zombies' is not technically possible.