There is something particularly odd about Michael Gove’s remark that children should be reading 50 books a year.
It’s not that he says this in the midst of a spending round so austere that libraries are being closed (one presumes perhaps that this challenge is reserved for children who have parents able to purchase said books).
It’s not that this comes from the man who, just weeks earlier, wanted to kick the Bookstart scheme into touch – and only toned down the cuts after a mighty fuss from some mightily-miffed children’s authors.
It’s not even that the idea is a bit daft. Why 50? Why not 52? Would 50 short stories count? Would War and Peace count as double? Negative marks for Mills and Boon?
And where’s the evidence – cited by Gove – that 80-90% of children only read one or two novels a year? It sounds made up – but incredibly handy if you want to give the impression state schools aren’t up to scratch.
This also continues the increasingly tiresome trend of importing innovation from the U.S. – this idea comes from Harlem – as if nothing of value is done closer to home. Never mind that there is a Summer Reading Challenge here – a national scheme – which aims to keep bookish minds occupied over the holidays. Why did Gove not mention this? One thing he should learn from the States is that they are very, very good at selling their successes.
But what’s really strange is that Gove said this at all. What on earth has it got to do with him whether children read 10, 20, 50 or 100 books? Why is a politician – a Secretary of State – concerning himself with such things?
More to the point, why is Gove sticking his oar in when he professes to believe in a political philosophy which is about a small state: an end to top-down interference and decision-making at the local level. One week it’s teachers who know best and it’s they that should be given the power to get on with things; the next we have an exercise in minutiae-management from the man at the top.
The problem is that this is becoming a habit for the Government; the desire to interfere based on their own personal prejudices. Gove has done it before with his views on what should – and shouldn’t – be taught in history lessons. And, we have had Nick Gibb babbling on about the tragic absence of Miss Havisham from the school curriculum (in his world it seems – on Planet Gibb – a single fictional character can genuinely save the world. He shares this view with the very small number of people who read Superman comics and believe them to be true).
This meddling is everywhere, and can take a malevolent form. Just take a look at the changes to funding to the Arts and Humanities Research Council – who are now duty bound to spend a ‘significant’ amount of its funding paying for research into the Government’s objectives and priorities. In other words, academic brains will be forced to add the words ‘big society’ to their research proposals in order to get the cash. This is a gross act, using £100m of public money to contort research to focus on a political slogan, and a pretty limp one at that.
This is unsettling coming from a Government that claims to believe in freedom of the individual: it looks very much like state control to me. Orwell and Huxley wrote of such things.
So, as an act of rebellion – symbolic if nothing else – let us take our copies of Great Expectations and hurl them in the fires, with the cry: “don’t tell us what to read posh-boy!” Then, get down from the barricades, and start off your very own 50 book challenge with some light reading: Animal Farm and Brave New World.