Monday 31 August 2009

Schools and The Great Story Vandalism

I did feel like hanging up my hat when I heard on Hat on Peglate night radio that some school somewhere  had given up its library altogether. I’ve been too heartbroken since to check it out, deciding it was just a bad dream and we are not really on the edge of a precipice, preparing to leap back into barbarism.

Now this fear has returned as, on succeeding days in my daily paper, I read interviews with two great children’s writers who separately nail the importance of school experience in the making or breaking of a story reader. Michael Morpurgo, the eminent ex children’s laureate, reflects on his own experience where, having loved stories at his mother’s knee he went to school, where ‘stories’ became ‘texts’ to be studied rather than enjoyed. Rescued from that by an inspired university teacher he became a teacher himself when ‘…the only time I had all their heads pointing one way was when I was telling them a great story.’

The iconoclastic writer Terry Deary goes a step further, declaring that he detests schools with a passion. In his own education his obvious talents went unremarked and unsupported and (unlike Michael Morpurgo) his obvious intelligence did not thrust him on to a university education. Terry is cynical about the value of schools, saying here, ‘Schools are an utter waste of a young life… (the bureaucrats said) “lock them up all day in the same room and call it school” ’.

Although there are ironic, comedic overtones to Terry’s assertions here,  one senses heartfelt conviction. He would ‘cut off my left arm’ rather than go into schools to read his immensely popular books to children.

Yet, (declaring an interest, as I have been there), when he talks to children in other arenas he definitely has ‘all the heads turned in his direction’ as the children wait with baited breath for the next part of the story. Then afterwards the children wait patiently and expectantly in a queue clutching their books ready to sign. And when their individual turn comes he speaks to them directly, matily: he is one of them. They go away, eyes shining. (The other great writer who achieves this par excellence is the children’s writer, David Almond).

In fact, Terry, like Michael Morpurgo and David Almond, is a great teacher who doesn’t need a school. Great storytellers. by definition, are great teachers. They can do it under a tree, in a cave, on a street-corner. For proof of this, go right back to – amongst others - the Irish, the Greeks and the native Americans.

With his million-selling Horrible Histories and his many other firecracker works of fiction Terry locks onto the anarchic child in all of us and makes her see how wild, how strange, how interesting has life been through the ages and makes us reach for more of the horrible stuff...

Of course there are still great teachers and librarians in school who – under economic and institutional constraints  -  do a fantastic job of teasing and seducing children into the world of books, putting the right book into the right hand and the right time, essentially giving them a doorway to their future. My friend Gillian W is just such a one, as is my Australian correspondent here called  The Genteel Arsenal, (also called Bookpusher) whose site demonstrates perfectly the creative sometimes surreal matrix of obsession with  books and children that is the sign of a good librarian.

But still the vandalism goes on! How many children get As or starred As for English and have never read a whole book – just bite-sized chunks that will allow them to score well on directed questions? How many  clever thoughtful children have missed out on even this much story (losing therefore the benefits listed below) because they are deemed not academic? How many teachers (of all subjects, not just English) have time, in their hard pressed lives, to read full texts around their subjects – or, horror of horrors – for sheer enjoyment?

I taught in schools at a time when the good teacher, intellectually independent while still well prepared and delivering the goods, was not shackled to the Sadean chair of  tick boxes and computerized reports.  Working with the primary children I told stories continually, of my life, and of theirs, of the ideas we were tackling and of life around. And we always had a good story from a good book every day. I liked to read that to them in the morning, when they and I were fresh enough to imagine the wonder of the world in the book. So we were united and this set the tone of the day.

I have to emphasise that all this was not instead of a directed curriculum. It was incorporated all the significant elements of the curriculum and made it memorable. They learned it through story, you see?

So what do children learn through story?  They learn to empathise, historically and culturally; to incorporate their own world into the larger one;  they learn that cause is followed inevitably by consequence; that the weak can hold their own with the strong; that laughter is good for you; that it’s OK to cry now and then; that the people world can be reflected in the animal world; that in a just world evil does not go unpunished; that hard stuff happens in families and they are not alone.

Crucially they also learn how to sit still and concentrate, to listen, to hear words distinctly and in consequence will read and write more naturally; they extend their vocabulary by hearing new words in context, without the necessity for explanation. They learn to read on their own, with absorption and understanding. And these skills will take them naturally on reading history, geography, politics, current affairs and so they become part of the larger world. And they will always have the pleasure of escaping into a book when all around them is chaos.

Idealistic? Not really. I did it myself as a very poor and disadvantaged child: I learned all the elements listed above and I made it part of my philosophy as a teacher and as a writer.

But the barbarians with their clipboards are rattling the gates. We should watch out.


 Post Script from (my good friend) Sharon Griffiths from her article in The Northern Echo: her take on this issue

‘........Parkside Sports College at Willington has apparently scrapped its library, though it says books will still be available in the classroom.  And yes, when it comes to reference books, I can see there might be a point.  What’s the point of an out of date atlas when the internet can give you the most immediate up to date information?  We are in a fast changing world and we need to keep up with it.

And yet…. Before you can make the most of the internet and the unbelievable amounts of information available, you need to serve a long apprenticeship.  I can get what I want from the internet in minutes – simply because  all those years ploughing through reference books has trained me in how to access information, to find out what is relevant, and discard the dubious.  Today’s children will have no such training, no weighing and considering what they are told.

But what horrified me is that the governors of the school apparently declared books “obsolete”.  Obsolete?  ALL books?  If anyone involved in any way with teaching children  genuinely believes that, then the world is in meltdown.

Parkside might be much improved, but  with an attitude like that, what it is doing is training children to pass exams, tick the right boxes and little more It has nothing to do with broadening minds, exciting dreams, awaking aspirations and showing the children the endless possibilities of the world.

And absolutely nothing at all to do with education............"

Parkside incidentally, has just recorded its best ever exam results.  Says it all really.’ Sharon Griffiths,


This is a photo of the library where I sat and wrote for periods while I was in France. If you look hard you will see it is a young teacher introducing her small pupils to the delights of this fine library



  1. This is about as perfect a defence of libraries and reading and the pure, life changing joy of books as I have ever read. The tragedy is that we live in an era when they need defending at all. Bravo for always, always holding out against the barbarians, one page at a time. Dxx

  2. Dear Deb
    Bless you for carrying the same civilised torch - living proof that the method works and works on. The intelligence if people reaches far deeper than the sticks and clubs wielded by bureaucratic robots.

  3. I always hated school with a passion. It felt like a straight jacket to my imagination and a weight on my soul. For me the only thing that made it bearable was the school library, it was a door into so many worlds that I could escape into.
    The internet is a wonderful tool, but in comparison to browsing through a well stocked library it is a shallow two dimensional experience.

  4. Oh wow Wendy that was a great post. I have been following stories in Britian about school libraries being essestially replaced by information centres, left with few if any books, a true tragedy. We I suspect will go down a similar path eventually, already book choice has become about how each book will help the kids pass the NAPLAN. I went to an education seminar on our CBCA winners and the books were discussed in terms of how they could enhance teaching for national testing, not for all those things you so rightly mention in your post. One book which is I admit of slightly dubious quality was rejected out of hand because of its lack of value in terms of testing, that same book is loved by the kids especially our reluctant readers, they love the imaginative escapist adventure it offers them.
    I so agree with all you said and with Lickedspoon and Al. I think I know a few kids like Al, the library is their oasis. Wonderful post.

  5. Such a timely and well-argued post. And ironic, is it not, that school libraries are under threat while, in these recessionary times, local library usage is on the increase?

    I remember having a sort of sinking feeling back in the 1990s when one of the further education colleges I worked with replaced its library with a heavily IT-orientated "learning centre". Probably because they no longer had students; everyone had become a "learner". Calling people "learners", reasoned the powers that be, was more welcoming, less frightening, less divisive. But if "learners" were studying GCSEs or A-levels they were still called - and have remained - students . . . Come to think of it, I've never heard anyone say "I'm a learner at Whatever College."

    In the meantime - and back at at least one learning centre - e-learning was increasingly in the ascendancy, with everyone learning the same facts in the same way and producing the same answers. (Mr Gradgrind would have been most impressed.) Learning - but not necessarily studying. I agree with Al; the internet is a great tool but books are in a completely different league.

  6. hi Wendy
    I see you are just as proflific with your blogs as you are with your wondeful stories, you have energy and imagination that makes your books well worth a read
    keep them coming



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